Boston Passes Ban on Plastic Bags

CC BY 2.0. Votsek -- "A (plastic) bag lady" in the North End of Boston, Masschusetts

It took a year to decide, and it will take another year to implement, but Boston's mayor has made the right decision.

Boston is the latest city to pass a ban on single-use plastic bags. The debate lasted a year, with supporters saying it would reduce litter and plastic waste in the environment and detractors arguing it's a tax on the poor, but Mayor Martin J. Walsh finally signed the bill this past Sunday.

Walsh says he was swayed by the the environmental arguments: "In theory, it’s great for the environment. There’s no question about that."

Shoppers will now have to use reusable shopping bags or pay 5 cents for a thicker, reusable plastic bag or a paper bag with handles. Not everyone is happy. Some low-income individuals say it is "not fair" and will add to the stress of paying for groceries. (They shouldn't complain. The Canadian city of Victoria will soon be charging 15 cents for the same.) The Boston Globe reports that there are efforts to resolve this problem:

"[City Council president Michelle Wu] said that over the next year, city officials will work to partner with businesses and organizations to help provide reusable bags to those with limited incomes. She said support for the ban came from residents of all income levels."

While I think this is great news, there's one aspect of these urban plastic bag bans that I do not understand. Why IS the consumer expected to bear that cost? After all, a switch from single-use plastic to paper will ultimately save a municipal government money. Why doesn't a city pay for those greener bags, subsidizing business owners, and making it as easy as possible for people to stop using plastic, which we know is terrible all-around?

Boston city councillor Matt O'Malley acknowledges the current costs associated with plastic bag cleanup, telling Metro News:

“I would argue that as it currently stands, we are paying a fee for plastic bags. Businesses factor the cost of bags into their bottom line, and the Department of Public Works spends time cleaning up these bags from trees, parks, lots, storm drains and waterways."
In Boston, 20 tons of plastic bags are thrown into the city’s single-stream recycling each month, O’Malley said, causing workers to spend hours each day removing bags from the equipment. "We are paying for that indirectly as taxpayers."

I am concerned, too, about the availability of thicker plastic bags, especially when paired with a 5-cent fee that many average-income people won't mind paying. Thicker plastic bags are still bad for the environment, containing more plastic that single-use bags and still hardly recycled, no matter what the industry says.

I'd love to see full subsidization of paper bags by municipal governments, paired with either an outright ban or significantly higher fees on plastic of any kind -- even in the range of $2-$5 per bag, which would really discourage people from taking them. Paired with reusable cloth bags and leftover cardboard boxes provided by stores, shoppers should be just fine.

Boston is the 60th town in Massachusetts to pass a plastic bag ban, and a statewide ban is pending before the Legislature. Regardless of my nitpicking complaints, these are all great steps and ones I hope to see replicated in more cities around the world.