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Plastic bag ban in the State House

As municipal restrictions on the use of plastic shopping bags gain traction throughout Massachusetts, some environmentalists hope a statewide ban could soon become reality.

Legislation that would phase out plastic shopping bags across the state by August 2018 was recently released from committee. The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, is optimistic it will pass.

“There’s such a groundswell of support at the municipal level, I’m happy we can see this through,” Ehrlich said.

At least 19 Massachusetts communities have enacted bans or restrictions on the use of plastic shopping bags, with proposals in more than a dozen other cities and towns expected to be voted on this spring.

Littleton currently doesn’t have a ban on plastic bags and there hasn’t been any effort to enact one, according to Town Clerk Diane Crory.

Supporters of bag bans say discarded plastic shopping bags have a detrimental effect on the environment, particularly the oceans.

“That bag lasts forever and doesn’t break down fully ever,” said Emily Norton, a Newton city councilor and director of the Massachusetts Sierra Club. “It breaks down into microplastics that are eaten by fish, which are eaten by bigger fish, which then are eaten by us.”

Americans throw out more than 100 billion plastic shopping bags every year, according to the Worldwatch Institute. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that just 5.2 percent of bags are recycled.

Norton said bags are rarely recycled due to their low value and their tendency to clog machinery used in recycling plants.

Brian Houghton, vice president of the Massachusetts Food Association, the statewide trade organization for grocers, supports a statewide ban.

A patchwork of different municipal ordinances presents significant challenges for stores with multiple locations throughout the state, Houghton said.

“There are different bans on different thicknesses. It’s all over the place,” he said. “It makes it very difficult for our industry, especially multi-store multi-state members.”

While he supports Ehrlich’s bill, Houghton said he’d like to see legislation that addresses multiple forms of plastics and single-use containers.

“We’re trying to promote legislation that reduces litter comprehensively,” he said.

While a growing number of communities are banning plastic shopping bags, some groups oppose such restrictions. The national Bag the Ban campaign, for example, argues that plastic bags are recyclable and that it takes less energy to produce them compared to alternative materials.

The campaign is funded by plastic bag manufacturer Novolex, which did not return a request for comment.

Brookline resident Clint Richmond, who led the petition that evolved into his town’s 2012 ban on plastic bags, said efforts to ban the use of plastic bags and polystyrene have “become a movement in Massachusetts.”

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