INCONVENIENT TRUTHS.

Attention shoppers: Save your nickels! Every trip to the grocery store could now cost you at least five cents more. 

 By Kristen Conti.

“Do you want a bag for that?” More often than not, nowadays this is a question cashiers of supermarkets and retail stores ask as they ring you up at the register. A year ago, this wasn’t a question as much of an assumption. If I buy something, of course I want a bag. Now however, what used to be a common assumption has transformed to a new norm of the retail market, leaving people confused and frustrated. There are laws in place that explicitly state statewide bans on plastic grocery bags and require grocery stores to charge at least five cents per bag upon customer request. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, back in 2014, California became the first state to impose a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags at retail stores and required a 10-cent minimum charge for recycled paper bags, reusable plastic bags, and compostable bags. After being forced onto the ballot in the November 2016 election after a referendum, the ban went into effect shortly after.

Similarly, in Boston, the plastic bag ban went into effect at the end of 2018 and stores are currently complying with it. The ordinance banning plastic bags in Boston does not completely ban the use of plastic, as retailers are allowed to sell thicker plastic bags as reusable bags. They have to be made of materials like polyester or propylene (which are at least three millimeters in thickness); basically, anything other than Polyethylene terephthalate, or PET (which is around two millimeters thick). To put PET in perspective, according to the PET Resin Association, “Virtually all single-serving and 2-liter bottles of carbonated soft drinks and water sold in the U.S. are made from PET.” 

According to William C. Rennie, Vice President of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, “Typical exemptions that are pretty common are dry cleaning bags and bags used to wrap food.”

And provided single-use plastic bags are given at the register, customers must be charged a five-cent fee and the bag charge must be included on the receipt, as stated in the ordinance.

In Massachusetts there are about 95 municipal ordinances within cities and towns that ban plastic bags or put a fee on plastic bags. And within the past six years, there have been many different versions of the ban. Similar to California, where plastic bag thickness must be at least 2.25 millimeters, in Massachusetts, the standard is 3.0 millimeters. 

There have been multiple bills at the state level that have evolved over the years, but now what Massachusetts is seeing is the urge to eradicate all plastic bags, despite thickness or material. Rennie explained that at the state level, the goal is to “just go with cloth or some type of washable plastic.”

The Retailers Association of Massachusetts, or RAM, is a statewide group engaged in the Boston Ordinance debate. “We were opposed to the regulation of the ordinance,” said Rennie. “We don’t believe that cities and towns should be engaging in the regulation of consumer products or goods and commerce.” In today’s economy, Rennie believes it is ideal that this type of thing be regulated at the federal level so that sellers in all states are on a level playing field. “And if not at the federal level, at the minimum, on the state level.” 

Brian Houghton, Sr. Vice President of Government Affairs and Communications for the MA Food Association, said the association was not in support of a state-wide bill in the beginning because there were not as many local ordinances. “But now, it’s spun out of control,” said Houghton. “And out of 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts, you’ve got almost a third of them under a different ordinance,” so at this point people would rather see it state-wide.    

To Rennie, banning plastic on a state level is acceptable, but when it comes to charging a fee, it really depends on what size of a seller you are. “If the goal here is to reduce and eliminate plastic, we have to look where we see all those bags,” said Rennie. 

“The small little gift shop on Cape Cod will tell me they appreciate customers coming in and they buy at full price and they say they don’t really feel comfortable charging five cents for a bag,” said Rennie. Especially when just yesterday, these bags were handed out for free. “They are not the big-volume bag users we’re trying to get at,” said Rennie.

Houghton said, “Some people blamed the stores for the change, not realizing it was done by the city.” If there were issues, it was suggested that people talk to the city counselors. 

Many people have been caught off guard with the new ban, but it was far from unexpected. “I wouldn’t say it was sudden because it did pass in November and that was a year ago, and this past November it went into effect,” said Houghton. “But obviously you can’t reach everybody,” he added, so for some, the ban was from left field.

“Someone shops downtown at Macy’s and spends a couple of hundred dollars,” said Rennie. “Now you’re going to charge (them) 10 cents for two bags?” This is why the customers are getting extremely upset. 

There are both supporters and opponents of the Boston ordinance, depending on the size of the businesses involved as well as people’s advocacy for the environment. Nonetheless, Rennie and the Retailers Association of Massachusetts’ urge for a state-wide bill might be our best bet to ensure greater stability and a more balanced approach to the U.S.’ current waste dilemma. 

 With similar motivation, Tesco PLC, the third-largest retailer in the world, with headquarters located in the United Kingdom, has just announced a trial where they will cut out most of the plastic packaging in the fruit and vegetable sections in two of their stores. According to Laura Abernethy of Metro News, “A total of 45 packaged foods will be taken out of stores in Watford and Swindon.” This is part of Tesco’s attempt to reduce packaging and only leave plastic that can be recyclable or has a necessary purpose. “They are also aiming to halve packaging weight, make all packaging fully recyclable and ensure all paper and board used is 100% sustainable by 2025,” said Abernethy.

While banning plastic bags might be another commendable step towards improving our environment, many still question whether such a small step is worthy of the havoc it has stirred in regard to small businesses and the inconvenience of the common consumer. 

Is it really worth five cents every time we run to the store to buy a carton of milk and say yes when the cashier asks if we want a bag?

According to Rennie, from the waste studies he’s seen, plastic bags are only around 0.2% of the world’s litter. “I think the impact is minimal at best and probably won’t even be able to be measured.”

So again, is it worth it?