March 9, 2023
• Some Needham residents would like town meeting members to vote for a by-law that would prohibit stores from providing single-use plastic bags.
reported by Yuxiao Yuan
The discussion of implementing a plastic shopping bag ban in Needham has resurfaced. In 2018, the Select Board passed a policy encouraging stores with at least 3,500 square feet of retail space to voluntarily discontinue the use of single use plastic bags. However, local environmental activists are pushing for a formal ban to be enacted in Needham.
Rob Fernandez and Kathy Riaz, members of the local environmental advocacy group, Green Needham Collaborative, are spearheading the effort to implement a town-wide restriction on plastic shopping bags.
“Passing a ban that applies to all stores of all sizes will be very clear,” explains Fernandez. “Everyone will know what the regulation is. When the voluntary commitment was essentially passed by the Select Board five years ago, the intention was to to get rid of the thin plastic shopping bags, because basically that was what was around at that point. You know, it was prevalent.”, said Fenandez.
Raiz says that while it was a good start, it didn’t solve the problem of plastic waste. “We were grateful when all of the stores five years ago got rid of the plastic bags that they were using through the voluntary ban. But what we’ve seen over time is that many of the stores have brought in the thicker plastic reusable bags.”
Added Fernandez,”We’re calling into question how often they’re reused. Is it likely that they’re just being thrown away?”
Fernandez and Riaz have submitted a Citizen’s Petition or an article that will be voted on at the upcoming annual Town Meeting in May. if approved by the majority of the Town Meeting members, the bylaw would prohibit all stores in Needham from providing any plastic bags to customers at checkout regardless of thickness, including those labeled as reusable.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2018, only 10% of plastic bags, sacks and wraps are recycled in the US. The rest often ended up in landfills or, as litter, posing a significant environmental and health hazard.
Kathy Raiz explains why. “When plastic breaks down it, it becomes microplastics and those have kind of infiltrated all over the globe. Microplastics have been found in newly fallen snow in the Arctic. They’ve been found as deep as the Marianna Trench in the oceans, because plastic is now in the air, in our soil and in our water sources. It is being ingested in in humans, as well. It’s coming into our food chain and, in fact, there are are serious concerns about PFAS,
which are forever chemicals that come from a result of degrading plastics.”
Raiz also noticed the discarded reusable plastic bags have placed an extra financial burden on the town.”When that recycling is taken to the conveyor belt, plastic bags can get stuck in the machinery of the conveyor belt and that causes financial issues because they have to shut down the facilities and it also could cause the the workers’ harm as they’re trying to dislodge these plastic bags.”
Information collected by the Massachusetts chapter of the Sierra Club, a national environmental advocacy organization, shows that as of May 2022 154 cities and towns have regulations against some types of plastic shopping bags. Rob Fernandez urges,”If Needham were to were to follow in that way, we would be among, you know, really good company.”
Raiz pointed out during a Select Board meeting on February 28th, among these 154 communities, many have also updated their regulations to include thicker plastic bags including Brookline, Dedham, Framingham, Newton, Wallam, Watertown, and Wellesley.
In comparison to the current policy, the proposed bylaw also provides a clearer definition of the allowable paper bags and reusable bags. It defines a reusable bag as a sewn woven bag with stitched handles.
The proposed ban would take effect on January 1st, 2024 for stores of 3,500 square feet or larger or chains with at least 3,500 square feet of retail space in total at two or more locations in town. Smaller stores will have an additional six months to comply. Explains Fernandez, “The smaller stores…may have bags on hand and it might be a little bit of a challenge for them to switch.
The bylaw would also impose a schedule of fines for violations.
Robert Fernandez and Kathy Raiz are also leading grassroots advocacy efforts to encourage people to bring reusable bags while shopping.
“Recognizing that reducing plastic waste is a community effort, what I’ve been doing is going to all of the schools in town and giving presentations on the dangers of plastic and the impacts that it has on the environment and encouraging them to bring reusable bags to the stores and having them ask their parents to do, and their families to do the same thing.” says Raiz. “In addition, on April 3rd at 7:00 PM I’ll be giving a presentation on plastic pollution and the effects on human health at the Needham Library.”