After Bag Ban, 'Paper Or Plastic' Still A Question

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Environment

Plastic shopping bags like these are still allowed, because of the thicker plastic. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

Lightweight, single-use plastic shopping bags are now officially outlawed in Harwich and Chatham, thanks to bylaws passed by voters. And while the initiative seems to be boosting the use of reusable shopping bags, some retailers are still providing plastic bags to customers – legally.

While Chatham's ban has been in effect only since Jan. 1, the Harwich prohibition has been in place for nearly a year.

“It has gone in pretty much without any resistance,” Harwich Health Director Paula Champagne said. An educational program was put in place before the bag ban took effect and most retailers adapted quickly. A few smaller stores, including takeout restaurants, attempted to continue using up their existing stock of the prohibited bags, “but we corrected that,” Champagne said.

Her department has had no calls or complaints from citizens about the prohibition, she added.

The Harwich bylaw is similar to ones adopted by many other communities, and targets “single-use plastic bags” made of plastic with integral handles and of a thickness of less than 2.5 mils (thousandths of an inch). The prohibition specifically targeted the lightweight single-use bags that are typically .5 mil in thickness, easily blown by the wind and often found hung up in trees.

Stop and Shop New England divisional spokesman Philip Tracey said the supermarket chain hasn't heard complaints from customers about the removal of the lightweight plastic bags.

“Many customers are bringing their own reusable bags based upon their personal bagging preference,” he said. “In addition to paper, we do offer reusable/recyclable bags that fully comply with the bylaw.”

The store offers heavy-duty cloth-type shopping bags, but also has free low-density polyethylene plastic bags that are exempt from the ban because of their three-mil thickness. The bags are designed for re-use. In Chatham, retailer Ocean State Job Lot offers customers free high-density polyethylene plastic bags that appear to be less durable but can also be used again. Bags like these, with a 2.5-mil thickness, are just thick enough to be exempted from the ban. Both types of plastic bags are recyclable.

“It's a heavier bag. It's not something that's going to fly around in the environment the way the thin bags do,” Chatham Health Agent Judith Giorgio said. “We're hoping people reuse those bags if they get them.”

The prohibitions passed in Harwich and Chatham also specifically omit certain types of single-use thin plastic bags, including ones used for newspapers, dry cleaning, bulk foods, produce and meat. From a health perspective, it makes sense to keep produce and meat in a plastic bag, rather than in a reusable plastic bag which may not be easy to clean. These types of bags are also omitted from the ban because they don't have handles.

Giorgio said her office hasn't heard any public concerns about the two-month-old Chatham ban, “but it's early.” A truer test will be how seasonal retailers and their customers react to the bag ban this summer, she said.