By Jim Sullivan
---- — A local citizens group is pushing forward with efforts to curb the use of plastic bags in Newburyport, as members recently sent out a survey to gauge the level of support for a ban or fee, while also airing a documentary on local cable.
Citizens for Sustainable Bagging, a public advocacy group is looking to curtail the amount of single-use plastic bags by either placing a per-bag fee on consumers when they use plastic bags for the products they purchase, or by instituting an all-out ban on the bags.
However, not all business owners in the city — including two of the major plastic bag users — have said they have been approached by the group nor asked their opinion on the movement.
In an effort to collect information, the Citizens for Sustainable Bagging spent time earlier in the year surveying local businesses, but admitted that not all of the retailers were able to participate.
“We went door to door throughout downtown Newburyport, over to Port Plaza and all the way down to Merrimac and High streets and the Route 1 traffic circle area,” said Citizens for Sustainable Bagging founder Janine Brunell Looker. “Not everyone was able to take the survey. We received about 102 responses and of those responses, I would have to say that there was about a 65 percent approval rate.”
One of the most popular downtown businesses and a large supplier of single-use plastic bags, Richdale’s Convenience Store, was not contacted according to the store’s owner John Magro, who says half of his customers take the plastic bags with their products.
Angie’s Food, located directly next door to Richdale’s, uses the bags for their take-out orders and was contacted by the group’s student volunteers, owner Steve Luz said.
“They did come in and asked us,” Luz said. “At the time I said, ‘I applaud your efforts, but what is the alternative?’ They said they want to charge 10 cents apiece for everything that is going out. That’s very impractical. From a small business perspective, trying to manage that and pay the fee at the end, we’re already doing everything else that we do on top of that. It almost seems that they have to do it at the manufacturing end to come up with something that is not so destructive to the environment.”
The owner of Valerie’s Gallery on State Street, Valerie Stainton said she could not recall being surveyed herself when she was in the store but added that her shop does not use the single-use bags, and in fact, has a novel approach to the situation.
“I think that people are just automatically given a bag in today’s society,” Stainton said. “We have a sign that says, ‘Decline a bag, get a chocolate,’ and almost 100 percent of the people we see would rather get a chocolate than get a bag.”
The two biggest sources of single-use plastic bags in the city, Market Basket and Shaw’s supermarkets had differing information when asked if they were surveyed. While representatives for Shaw’s, which has been undergoing a change of ownership, were unwilling to comment, a spokesman from the Demoulas/Market Basket corporate office, David McLean said the company had not been approached by the group.
Meanwhile, residents are now being asked to weigh in on the cause.
The city’s 12-page recently released annual Health Information Guide includes a survey that advocates for the reduction of plastic bags and asks readers what how they use plastic bags when they shop, and if they support either a fee or a ban.
The survey was organized by the Citizens for Sustainable Bagging. Readers who have questions to contact the city’s office of Recycling and Energy, but that office is not responsible for issuing the survey as it isn’t a city initiative.
“It’s the Citizens for Sustainable Bagging who are doing this,” said the city’s Recycling and Energy Coordinator Molly Ettenborough. “They are the ones who are running this. It was just a survey. It was just trying to get information out there to people.”
The health guides were not taxpayer-funded, but were instead paid for by the city contractor for solid waste and recycling, G. Mello Disposal Corp.
“We are only responsible for content that is directly related to trash and recycling,” said Mello’s Director of Marketing and Public Relations Kelly Mello Woodsum, who added that her company has no opinion on the subject.
The Citizens for Sustainable Bagging has arranged to extensively air the documentary, “Bag It: Is Your Life Too Plastic?” on PortMedia’s Channel 8 throughout the summer. The group has reached out to local schools as well, eliciting volunteer support from the Newburyport High School Environmental Club as well as the Gulf of Maine Institute (GOMI).
“It’s one of those issues,” said Ettenborough who added the bags can cause havoc at the recycling center when included in people’s recycling bins.”I’ve heard from other towns, just in the last few weeks that they are looking into their own (usage). But I can’t say that the city is behind it because it is something that the City Council would need to vote on. The surveys are there to collect information so that they can use that information to bring to the City Council.”