, Newburyport, MA

May 15, 2014

An anecdotal ordinance on plastic bags

Newburyport Daily News

---- — To the editor:

If the comments of councilors and the number of co-sponsors of the ordinance are any indication, your City Council is going to pass a ban on businesses using plastic bags in Newburyport. At first blush, the effort appears laudable, with the goal of reducing the number of plastic bags in our landfills, recycling and treetops.

Laudable, but not necessarily effective when viewed in light of the facts: Among others I learned at the meeting, our city’s garbage is incinerated, it requires more trucks and carbon emission to transport the equivalent number of paper bags to our stores at a greater expense, and no significant study has been conducted on the effects, positive or negative, of the ban.

I do not intend — and do not want — to argue the virtues of plastic bags or disparage the motives of the proponents. The real question should be whether this ordinance will be effective and does that effectiveness outweigh the negative impact on residents and businesses, all of which a judicious body would clearly determine before passage.

This is also an argument about the proper role of local government — our City Council does not have the time, expertise or resources to evaluate such legislation, nor the jurisdiction to make it effective. If this were happening at the state or federal level, I would not be writing, as they have the resources and reach to determine and ensure an effective outcome. Imagine the protest if the council had spent city funds on a study to determine the effects of this ordinance.

The truth is, the City Council has no idea how effective the ban will be, and more worrisome, no idea what the effect will be on our residents and businesses. The argument in favor of the ban boils down to “plastic bags are bad and therefore banning plastic bags is good,” a specious argument seemingly supported by Internet research, surveys by middle and high school students, and anecdotes about bags in trees, elderly women holding bags of soup and a poll of 10 seniors at a luncheon meeting with the recycling coordinator.

The goal of this ban was best encapsulated by one councilor at the end of the meeting, who stated that the ordinance was not going to “cure the world’s ails” but his intention was to “set an image” for Newburyport as a socially responsible place.

If you want an activist City Council that passes symbolic gestures with indeterminate consequences, you don’t need to do anything. However, if you would rather have your City Council spend its time on local issues that have known and immediate positive impacts on you and your family (i.e., sidewalks, roads, education, taxes, athletic fields and recreational facilities), contact your city councilor and councilors at-large to tell them of your opposition.

Joe Devlin