Needham businesses offer perspective, voice impact of future plastic bag ban

October 26, 2023
• With the first implementation date approaching, local stores and restaurants are preparing to make it happen.

When Volante Farms switched from plastic bags to paper bags at their grocery checkout, it was a “little bit of a learning curve” for customers and staff alike, owner Steve Volante said.

“You don’t overfill them. The handles all rip, so you have to double bag them and tell everybody to pick them up by the bottom,” he said of the paper bags. “The first couple years, there was stuff breaking all over the place, and everybody has gotten used to it now.”

The family-owned farm still uses plastic bags at its deli, but with the upcoming town-wide plastic bag ban taking effect next year, that will soon change.

At the annual Town Meeting in May, Needham passed a permanent ban on single-use plastic bags at retailers, meaning stores will need to provide recyclable paper bags or reusable checkout bags. The bylaw takes effect Jan. 1 for businesses 3,500 square feet or larger, which includes Volante Farms, Roche Bros. and CVS. For all other businesses, the ban begins July 1.

Under the ban, no plastic bags can be offered at checkout specifically, but produce bags and plastic bags at the meat counter and deli will still be available.

Volante said it’s “a mixed bag” — no pun intended. Paper bags are heavier, more expensive and take up much more storage space than plastic bags, and on a global scale, trucks transporting those paper bags are producing more carbon emissions due to the added weight, Volante said.

The best solution is for customers to bring in their own reusable bags, he said, but people often forget them at home. Volante Farms also sells a heavier duty canvas tote bag as an alternative.

“I equate it to the water bottle thing. You can get the boxed water… or you can get a bottle of water, but better than both of those is bringing your refillable water bottle,” Volante said. “I think everybody gets that, and that’s what we try to do.”

The Select Board passed a voluntary single-use plastic bag ban for larger retailers in 2018, after advocacy from Green Needham, a volunteer-based organization that strives to institute more sustainable town practices. But adherence to that rule was “very spotty,” said Rob Fernandez, co-chair of the Green Needham’s Plastic Waste Reduction Team.

In the years since, Fernandez said they’ve seen chain stores introduce thicker plastic shopping bags, which he sees as a worse option. They use more plastic, and though they are marketed as reusable bags, most people do not bring them back to the store, thereby creating additional waste, team co-chair Kathy Raiz said.

The new bylaw addresses both the thin and those thick plastic bags.

“I don’t want to be fully cynical here, but it feels like, in a way, you saw stores start to use the thick plastic bags because they got around the thin ban,” Fernandez said.

Prior to bringing the plastic bag ban to Town Meeting as a citizen petition, Raiz and Fernandez sent out a survey in February through the town to 75 local business owners, 19 of whom responded. Of those 19, three reported exclusively using plastic bags, signaling that a permanent ban would likely have a minimal impact. A prior survey in 2018 found smaller stores were previously using more plastic bags, Fernandez said, but that seems to have since changed.

At least 159 communities across the state control the use of plastic shopping bags, according to the Massachusetts Sierra Club. Needham stood out as “an island” surrounded by communities that have already instituted some form of a plastic bag ban, Raiz said.

Raiz acknowledged the negative effect paper bags have on the environment and encouraged the use of reusable bags.

“It’s less about the inconvenience of getting rid of the plastic bags and understanding the horrible impact that single-use plastics have on our environment,” Raiz said of the ban, “and breaking down into microplastics and getting into our water and our air and even just the way that they’re manufactured.”

The plastic bag ban won’t change much at French Press Bakery & Cafe, which has never used plastic bags, founder and owner Jay Spencer wrote in an email. As head of the Newton-Needham Dining Collaborative, Spencer wrote that most members support the ban.

“In terms of the collaborative, the biggest challenge for restaurants involve saucy items for example Chinese takeout dishes or deli plastic,” he wrote. “However these items are exempt.”

Greg Reibman, president and CEO of the Charles River Regional Chamber, said he anticipates the transition in January to be “pretty seamless.” Residents and business owners understand the need for the ban, he said, and it will help people use their own bags more frequently.

“The public is ready for this, and retailers understand this,” Reibman said. “There may be the odd case where some retailer isn’t aware of it and will need to be reminded, but I’m sure they’ll quickly correct whatever they need to do.”

Needham’s Cappella Restaurant also has never used plastic bags, chef and owner Robert Picardi said. Though they ordered plastic bags during the pandemic — when paper bags were harder to come by — Picardi said they still didn’t use them. That shipment is now sitting, unused, in his basement.

When diners walk out of the restaurant, leftovers look better in paper bags, Picardi said, and “the less plastic we have, the better.” He said he thinks the upcoming plastic bag ban is a step in the right direction but worries about a potential slippery slope.

“In Newton, they’ve already (banned) plastic to-go containers, so I don’t want to go that far,” he said. “That would be an issue for my business.”

A state-wide action on plastic bag use may soon be on the horizon, but until then, Green Needham intends to find other ways to clean up the town, which may include supporting a proposed bill that would restrict restaurants from automatically adding plastic utensils, sauce containers and other items to take-out bags.

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