Massachusetts Legislators, it's time for a statewide bag law!

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Dear Governor Baker, President Chandler, and Speaker DeLeo:

We the people of Massachusetts have united to ask you to pass legislation this session to reduce waste from plastic bags.  As of this writing, over 60 cities and towns in the Commonwealth have passed legislation to restrict the distribution of plastic bags, as have the states of California and Hawaii, and dozens of countries worldwide. As of this writing, one-third of the state’s population – over 2 million people -- live in municipalities that have ratified bag regulations. It’s time for a statewide law.

We ask that in your deliberations over the joint bill S.424 / H.2121 you please consider the following facts:

THERE ARE TOO MANY BAGS.  Every year, Americans discard 100 billion single-use plastic bags.[1] Were it not for local laws, Massachusetts residents would use over 3.6 billion plastic bags per year.[2]

MOMENTARY CONVENIENCE, PERMANENT DAMAGE. Plastic bags are used for an average of 12 minutes, but a single plastic bag has a life expectancy of up to 1,000 years.[3]

WE PAY FOR “FREE” BAGS. The plastic bag industry collects $4 billion per year in profits from US retailers.[4] In Massachusetts alone, local retailers spend almost $144.7 million per year on bags. These costs are passed on to consumers.[5]

PLASTIC BAGS WASTE TAXPAYER DOLLARS. Each month, Massachusetts produces between 100 and 125 tons of bag waste. Plastic bags get caught in our single-stream recycling machinery, causing delay and damage, and contaminating materials that might be recovered.[6]

PLASTIC BAGS CONTRIBUTE TO GLOBAL WARMING. Plastic bags are created from non-renewable resources. More than 1.6 billion gallons of oil are used each year for plastic bags alone. Bags used in Massachusetts produce almost 96,458 metric tons of CO2 per year.[7]

PLASTIC BAGS ARE A MAJOR SOURCE OF LITTER. Even when disposed properly, bags end up in trees, gutters, roadsides, and waterways thanks to their light weight and aerodynamic qualities.[8]

PLASTIC BAGS ARE DESTROYING OUR OCEANS. Approximately 8 million metric tons of plastic debris enters the world’s oceans each year. By 2050, the oceans will contain more plastic than fish. This has a direct impact on the state’s fishing industry.[9]

PLASTIC BAGS KILL WILDLIFE. Bags entangle domestic and wild animals and are often mistaken as food. As microscopic particles, plastic displaces plankton in the marine food chain. A recent study found that 25% of fish sold in supermarkets contains plastic debris.[10]

BANNING PLASTIC BAGS AND IMPOSING A FEE FOR PAPER IS THE MOST EFFECTIVE WAY TO CHANGE CONSUMER BEHAVIOR. Study after study has shown that bag ordinances are super effective. Without a fee, laws typically reduce bag waste by 60 to 80%.  With a modest fee, bag laws reduce both plastic and paper by more than 90 percent. The nationwide standard for a bag fee, adopted in Cambridge with great success, is 10 cents.[11]

Because opponents often obfuscate the facts, let us address some of the most common questions:

Isn’t plastic better for the environment than paper?  No. This claim comes from a misunderstanding of life cycle analyses that do not account for the larger effects of plastic on environmental ecosystems. Plus, once people stop using plastic bags, they do not switch to paper. Instead, people quickly grow accustomed to reusable bags.[12]

Can’t plastic bags be recycled?  In theory.  But because manufacturing plastic bags is so cheap, recycling them is not cost-effective. Recycling one ton of plastic bags costs $4,000; the recycled product can be sold for $32. As a result, less than 1-5 percent of plastic bags are recycled each year.[13]

Won’t bag laws hurt local businesses?  No. It is true that paper bags are more expensive than plastic. But multiple studies have shown that once a bag law is in place, consumers become more conscientious and bring reusable bags, saving businesses money. It was only in the 1980s that plastic checkout bags became so common. No business has ever failed because of a bag law.

Don’t bag laws hurt the poor?  No. As Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley has noted, reducing waste is an environmental justice issue. Disadvantaged communities suffer disproportionately from environmental degradation, so they benefit the most from programs to cut litter. Plus, reducing the amount of money spent on cleaning bag waste frees municipal funds for much-needed social programs. Remember, bags aren’t really free – their costs are just hidden. There are numerous businesses and nonprofits eager to distribute free tote bags. Last year, Cambridge received thousands of donations.

Don’t reusable bags spread disease?  No. This claim comes from a ridiculous story about a norovirus outbreak among a girls’ soccer team that had nothing to do with reusable bags. The story, spread by industry lobbyists, has been thoroughly debunked. Washing reusable bags will kill any germs.[14]

Isn’t this Big Government taking away our freedom?  No. When the members of the Massachusetts legislature pass a statewide bag bill and the Governor signs it into law, they will not be making a top down decision. Rather, they will be following the will of the people expressed in the independent decisions of assemblies in over 60 of the Commonwealth’s cities and towns. The residents of Massachusetts have exercised their freedom, and they have chosen to live more sustainably.[15]

The undersigned, representing residents from every corner of the state, all agree: the time for Massachusetts’s bag law is now. 

Thank you for your consideration.

[1] Earth Policy Institute and Worldwatch Institute, State of the World 2004.
[2] Based on a population of 6.812 million (2016) and an annual use rate of 531 bags/person. Other estimates are as high as 1,093 bags per person per year. For a discussion of usage rates, see Parsons Brinckerhoff Consulting, Final Environmental Impact Report, Single-Use Carryout Bag Ordinance, City of Los Angeles. State Clearinghouse No. 201209053 (May 2013), p. 166.
[3] http://edition.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/asiapcf/07/13/eco.plasticbagwaste/index.html
[4] Telis Demos, Bag Revolution, Fortune, May 12, 2008.
[5] Cost based on annual number of bags, with an average cost of 4 cents/bag (which range in cost from 1.5 cents for very thin convenience bags to 10 cents and up for thick boutique bags).
[6] Testimony of Austin McKnight, Casella Recycling, to Boston City Council, November 2016.
[7] https://fooddemocracy.wordpress.com/2008/07/16/plastic-bags-and-oil-consumption/ Local figure based on a calculation of 0.04 metric tons of CO2 per 1500 bags. See Parsons Brinckerhoff, op cit., pp. 44-45. For an extended discussion see the report prepared for the Progressive Bag Alliance, a consortium of plastic bag manufacturers, by Boustead Consulting and Associates Ltd., Life Cycle Assessment for Three Types of Grocery Bags – Recyclable Plastic; Compostable, Biodegradable Plastic; and Recycled, Recyclable Paper (2007).
[8] Brendle Group, Triple Bottom Line Evaluation: Plastic Bag Policy Options, City of Fort Collins, Oct 2012, 9.
[9] World Economic Forum, The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics, Jan 2016
[10] C. M. Rochman, et al, Anthropogenic debris in seafood: Plastic debris and fibers from textiles in fish and bivalves sold for human consumption, Sci Rep 5, 14340 (2015).
[11] See the reports compiled at http://www.massgreen.org/plastic-bag-impact.html
[12] For a discussion of life cycle analyses, see http://www.massgreen.org/plastic-is-not-greener-than-paper.html
[13] http://www.cleanair.org/Waste/wasteFacts.html
[14] See https://myplasticfreelife.com/2012/05/dont-be-fooled-by-reusable-bag-norovirus-scare/
[15] See John Locke on liberty and responsibility, Second Treatise on Government (1689), §6.



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