, Newburyport, MA

February 15, 2013

Paper or plastic? Let people decide

Newburyport Daily News

---- — Each time we visit a supermarket, convenience store or pharmacy, we generally face one of America life’s most basic decisions: “Paper or plastic?”

Down the coast a few miles in Manchester-By-The-Sea, some residents and Manchester Essex Regional School District folks think that Manchester shoppers and business operators should no longer have that choice — that those retail plastic bags with the little handles should be banned from use throughout the town.

Plastic bags are an enemy of sorts these days, and for good reason. They take a fair amount of energy to produce (though not nearly as much as paper bags); they take decades if not centuries to break down; and they are a major source of ocean pollution and land litter.

Plastic bags have been banned in parts of California, and there has been talk of banning them in a variety of other places in the country.

There is no doubting the best intentions of those pushing for this Manchester proposal — which would only affect the types of retail bags described above, not plastic trash bags, not smaller market produce bags. And the measure now making its way toward Town Meeting in Manchester is not doing so in isolation; indeed, state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, has filed similar legislation that would ban plastic bags throughout the state in retail establishments with space of 4,000 square feet or more with three locations under the same ownership, in retail pharmacies with at least five locations under the same ownership or a supermarket with gross sales over $1 million.

In Manchester, the push includes a scale of fines — $50 for a store’s first offense, $100 on the second and $300 on a third or subsequent offense. It has also been suggested that retailers utilize reusable bags or anything biodegradable, most notably paper. And while that would clearly add an expense to local businesses, some suggest that retailers could sell more multi-use bags and could charge customers a nominal fee of 5 cents for paper bags in order to offset their costs.

The proliferation of plastic bags is a problem, but it would be wrong to attempt to legislate it away through fines and hard-headed government intervention. We prefer what we are seeing in local grocery stores and elsewhere. People are understanding that there are alternatives, such as reusable grocery bags that carry a lot more items in a much more convenient manner than plastic bags. And there’s no waste, though there is a cost to buy these bags.

We’d rather see individuals who are activists in this area try to educate consumers. Show them the statistics on the energy costs of making bags, the waste problems, the giant whirlpool of plastic that now swirls around a portion of the Pacific Ocean. We have confidence that many people will understand and will try to do the right thing.