The Massachusetts legislature has watered down a bill co-sponsored by Rep. Lori Ehrlich that would authorize a ban on plastic bags throughout the Commonwealth while charging shoppers a 10-cent fee for single-use bags, and the Marblehead Democrat said that in so doing, the House defeated the original purpose of it.
And the result is that as the bill languishes in committee during the dog days of August, the same people who so enthusiastically supported it when it was filed are far more ambivalent about it now.
Ehrlich, who represents Marblehead, Swampscott and parts of Lynn, and Sen. Jamie B. Eldridge came up with a bill that would include two key components. The first would be to ban single-use plastic bags, effective Aug. 1. The second was to institute a 10-cent fee for all single-use bags purchased.
The aim, Ehrlich said, was to change the habits of shoppers.
“Having to pay 10 cents a bag seemed to be a pretty powerful incentive for people to change their habits,” Ehrlich said. “And the store owners liked it too.”
Ehrlich said that the cost of paper bags came to about a dime a unit, and the 10-cent charge back to the customers helped reduce store overhead.
The original bill had widespread support. It had the blessing of environmental, retail and municipal groups. It also had bipartisan support, and was endorsed by nearly 100 legislators and 200 constituent groups.
But the bill that went into committee isn’t the same one that came out. It had one important change.
“The draft that came out of the (Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Committee’s) discussions came out without the mandatory fee,” she said. “It says stores can charge a fee if they want, but that they don’t have to.”
And that, Ehrlich said, will put stories that feel the need to charge a fee at a competitive disadvantage. Their only alternative, she said, is to waive the fee and take the loss.
Ninety-three communities across the Commonwealth, including Lynn, have already passed their own ordinances. This represents 40 percent of the state’s population, Ehrlich said.
Under Lynn’s ban, which was passed by the Board of Health by a 2-0 vote in April, customers would be charged the 10-cent fee for bags if they don’t want paper.
The need for such a ban is apparent, according to a statement on Ehrlich’s website.
“It phases out single-use plastic bags … which clog our gutters and storm drains, litter our sidewalks, and harm marine life,” she said on her site.
She added that California instituted a ban such as the one she proposed back in 2014, “without major disruption to their retail sector. Massachusetts should do the same.”
However, by removing the mandatory surcharge for paper bags, groups that supported the bill before are no longer sure.
“The original draft would have been one of the strongest plastic bag regulations anywhere,” said Alex Vai, campaigns coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation, an all-volunteer environmental group that has been pushing for a statewide ban. The revised bill that came out of committee, he said, “is a slap in the face.”