We were surprised recently to see a rack of plastic grocery bags next to the checkout at the East Harwich Stop and Shop. As we fumbled to pack our reusable cloth bags, now standard equipment on any shopping trip, we wondered what had happened to the ban on plastic bags passed in Harwich more than a year ago.
The answer, we discovered, was that nothing had changed; single-use plastic bags are still banned in Harwich, and in Chatham under a board of health regulation implemented Jan. 1. But the ban applies to bags less than 2.5 mils thick; that's 2.5 thousands of an inch. The bags being offered free of charge at Stop and Shop, and at at least one other area retailer, are thicker, three mils or more, than those lightweight bags that easily sail through the air and get snagged in trees and in bushes. Thus they escape the ban, implemented to reduce litter, via a technicality.
Is that a bad thing? Officials don't seem overly concerned. The new plastic bags are heavier and therefore less likely to become wind blown. And they are clearly rugged enough for some reuse, though they don't seem as durable as the cloth or vinyl bags many shoppers bring with them. The bags are also recyclable, which is a plus.
However, we can't help but think that this is an end-run around the plastic bag bans. We've already seen these new heavier plastic bags languishing by the side of the road, and wonder if, like their earlier incarnation, they will end up becoming a ubiquitous blight on the landscape as their use proliferates. A ban on plastic bags with handles – as opposed to non-handle deli-type bags, which aren't included in the bans – should be a ban on plastic bags with handles, period. If retailers wish to offer real reusable bags – either cloth or vinyl – they should do that, rather skirting the ban and adding another item to the waste stream. Plastic, after all, is forever, as shown in the documentary “A Plastic Ocean,” to be screened at the Chatham Orpheum Theater Saturday followed by a panel discussion on plastic pollution of our waterways at the Eldredge Public Library.
Chatham and Harwich should revisit their plastic bag bans before this new type of just-under-the-wire-legal bag becomes as problematic as the thinner versions.