Starting July 1, 2020, the use of plastic checkout bags by retailers in Franklin, MA shall become illegal under a new town ordinance recently promulgated by the Franklin Town Council.
The Plastic Checkout Bag Prohibition Bylaw prohibits the “use of thin-film, single use plastic bags at checkout by all retailers in the Town of Franklin.”
The bylaw requires that all retailers who provide checkout bags to customers utilize only recyclable-paper, biodegradable or reusable bags. (The bylaw provides definitions of each permitted bag.)
In announcing the plastic checkout bag prohibition, Franklin Town Administrator Jamie Hellen noted that Franklin has joined ranks with 58% of all Massachusetts cities and town (381 to date) that have enacted similar bag bans.
Plastic bag bans or restrictions have been in effect statewide for some time in California and Oregon. A statewide ban on single-use plastic checkout bags went into effect in New York on March 1, 2020.
Local bans have been enacted by many counties and municipalities in other states across the U.S.
The problem with plastics
Plastics are omnipresent in modern life. They are durable and can be spun or molded into just about any form or shape needed. Plastics are inert, making them highly appropriate for the creation of storage containers and bags because they do not interact with the material they store. But plastics do not biodegrade; they do not rot-away like organic matter. Plastic can last decades and even hundreds of years in the environment without decaying. What’s worse, plastics do photo-degrade. Exposure to sunlight breaks down plastics into increasingly smaller and smaller pieces over time.
As explained by the above website created by the US Environmental Protection Agency, plastic waste is proliferating in the world’s oceans. Many fish, birds, and marine mammals ingest small pieces of plastic and die each year. As plastic photo-degrades, the process can release chemical pollution into the water, some of which is getting into the world’s food chain. It’s a serious problem!
Thin-plastic carryout bags are so numerous
Thin-plastic checkout bags are handed out by US retailers in the hundreds of millions – some say billions – every year. By banning checkout bags, Franklin is seeking to eliminate at least part of the plastics pollution problem. Paper bags and reusable bags would seem to be sensible and fairly painless replacements.
Wholesale club chains such as Sam’s Club, Costco, and BJ’s Wholesale (there’s a BJ’s in Franklin, MA) do not hand out any bags at all.
So maybe banning single use checkout bags would be viewed as a no-brainer?
Pushback against bag bans
Maybe not! Changes in law and government policy can have unanticipated negative consequences. So perhaps it is no surprise that plastic bag bans have been criticized and have encountered opposition.
Some of the criticism about bag bans has come from the plastics industry itself, which is to be expected. But some voices in academia and even environmentalism have also been raised against the bag bans.
In a 2017 doctoral dissertation entitled It’s Not Easy Being Green: Lessons from Disposable Carryout Bag Regulations, Rebecca L. Taylor makes a number of arguments against plastic bag bans. Ms. Taylor claims to have proof that bag bans are counterproductive in that they hurt the environment more than checkout plastic bags have. In the dissertation, the author asserts that consumers in California responded to various regulations banning or restricting the distribution of disposable checkout plastic by increasing their use (and disposal) of other types of plastic bags. The dissertation also alleges that the creation and disposal of paper checkout bags ultimately have more harmful effects on the environment than plastic bags, and declared that the manufacture of reusable grocery bags produces serious negative environmental impacts.
Did Franklin make a mistake?
Some could argue that Franklin should not have gotten on the plastic bag ban bandwagon and let economic forces decide what checkout bags are available at Franklin retailers. On the other hand, go shopping anywhere in town and you’ll collect a whole lot of plastic bags. Kitchen closets and pantries can get full of them and the bags seem rarely to get recycled. So the bag ban seems sensible and perhaps was long overdue. People old enough to remember food shopping through the mid 1980s know that everyone did just fine without all those plastic bags!