Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

December 30, 2014

Another Pause Button for the Plastic Bag Bill

Filed under: Cambridge,City Council,elections,planning — Sharanya Srinivasan @ 3:39 pm

It seems that the fate of plastic bags in the City of Cambridge is suspended in limbo. Multiple iterations of a Plastic Bag Reduction Ordinance have been ferried in and out of City Council hearings since 2007, but without a resounding “Aye!” After successive rounds of discussion and drafting, then-councilor Marjorie Decker introduced her “Plastic Bag Reduction Ordinance” in July 2013. This required retail establishments to distribute either recyclable paper bags or reusable checkout bags to customers. The law was never called to vote because of Decker’s departure to the state legislature, and the arrival of four newly elected councilors. So Decker’s ordinance went back on the revision merry-go-round, resulting in an amended version of the 2013 bill titled the “Checkout Bag Ordinance of the City of Cambridge”. The revised amendment package, proposed on October 27, was placed before the council in December 2014. However, a scattered consensus and interpolation of additional amendments has resulted in the postponement of a vote to February 2015.

In its conception, the plastic bag bill functions to counteract the “single use, throwaway” culture of city life, which contributes to global climate change, and degradation of the natural environment through littering and waste production. Both versions of the ordinance promote the distribution of recyclable or reusable bags by retail establishments in Cambridge. So, why does the plastic bag issue keep getting recycled in hearings? One reason is the discordant opinions on the severity of the bill. Decker’s original version was undoubtedly more stringent in its enforcement. It defined “recyclable paper bag” as a 100% recyclable bag that contains at least 40% post-consumer recycled content; the amended version simply defined it as a 100% recyclable bag, and also permitted the usage of compostable plastic bags. The revised Checkout Bag Ordinance also permits the city’s Public Works Commissioner exemption powers under circumstances of “undue hardship” to retailers, for up to 2 years. In contrast, Decker’s 2013 ordinance only granted 6 month exemptions. Given that the plastic bag restrictions are broadly imposed upon retail establishments, including restaurants, pharmacies and grocery stores, thus extending the regulatory reach of the bill, dissent on the bill’s severity is unsurprising. Additionally, new amendments continue to facilitate debate, and by extension, indecision! New addenda proposed in the December 2014 hearing include an amendment to exempt church events from the regulations and to establish an oversight committee for businesses to directly appeal restrictions.

The newer Checkout Bag Ordinance is more balanced, and more likely to appeal to the greater Cambridge community. More importantly, tweaks and revisions can be identified in a more targeted and effective manner once the ordinance has been passed by the council. The plastic bag ordinance has been tethered in legislative limbo for long enough. Hopefully, it will be brought to reality in 2015.

1 Comment

  1. Let us save the planet, a slow step at a time. I am all for this!

    Comment by Vasan Chary — January 13, 2015 @ 4:39 pm

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