Lowell Sun: Sen. Jamie Eldridge, Tyngsboro TV host push ban on plastic shopping bags

December 12, 2009
By John Collins

TYNGSBORO — Credit cards aren’t the form of plastic Americans should fear most, according to naturalist Mark Fraser.

Plastic shopping bags that supermarkets give out by the billions present a greater threat, Fraser claims, because they’re increasingly ending up in a giant, swirling garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean — and in our food.

Fraser, host of the public TV series Nature Walks with Mark, is hoping to rally the public to support Sen. Jamie Eldridge’s bill calling for a ban on single-use plastic grocery bags in the state’s largest supermarket chain stores.

“If Massachusetts bans these single-use plastic grocery bags, I believe it’ll start a chain reaction on a national level,” says Fraser, who met with Eldridge recently to discuss a strategy for more public awareness.

Said Eldridge, an Acton Democrat: “These plastic bags are something that really shouldn’t be in the consumer market. Because after they’re used to bring groceries to your car, (the plastic) is very hard to break down. It impacts wildlife and wastes oil,”

Eldridge’s bill, which is currently in the Joint Committee on the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture, would “prohibit the use of plastic carry-out bags” in the state’s largest grocery stores, requiring them to offer their customers reusable cloth, nylon or paper bags instead. The bill exempts smaller stores, defined as those with less than $500,000 in annual sales.

Also exempt would be plastic bags found in fruit-and- vegetable aisles, “and in applications where small, loose hardware is sold,” the bill states.

“About 380 billion of these plastic bags are used every year by Americans, and only about 5 percent are recycled, That’s why we need the ban,” said Eldridge. “It would be better for the environment, and better for the supermarkets because they wouldn’t have to spend money on the bags.”

Eldridge’s bill is opposed by the Massachusetts Food Association, representing 500 supermarkets statewide, large and small, according to the trade group’s vice president, Brian Houghton.

The association has also worked to defeat previous legislation, filed by Sen. Brian Joyce, a Milton Democrat, in 2007 that sought to charge consumers 2 cents per plastic bag, gradually increasing to 15 cents over seven years.

“It’s not the plastic bag that’s the problem. It’s what people do with it after the fact,” said Houghton. “If you’re doing the right things with them, I don’t really see the need for a tax or an outright ban on them.”

Houghton said the association recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, pledging to carry out a 33 percent reduction in the use of plastic bags by 2013.

“We’re the first state in the country that’s done something like this,” said Houghton.

Count Lowell resident Betty O’Brien as someone who’s also opposed to the ban. O’Brien told The Sun she couldn’t imagine life without the dozen or so plastic bags she takes home from Market Basket every week.

“We use them as small trash-barrel liners, as lunch bags — we use them for everything,” said O’Brien, who, before yesterday, had been unaware of the existence of the Pacific Ocean’s giant plastic garbage patch, as described by the environmentalists.

“Plastic bags are so aerodynamic that even when properly disposed of, they can still blow away and become litter in the oceans and on land,” said Phil Sego, spokesman for the Sierra Club of Massachusetts, citing a United Nations’ estimate that “1 billion animals are killed every year by plastic bags.”

According to Fraser, a billion more marine-animal deaths yearly are being attributed to plastic poisoning and ingestion, which affects the global food chain. The smallest fish and marine life ingest bits of plastic, and these petroleum-based chemicals work their way up the food chain eventually to be consumed by humans who favor seafood, including tuna, said Fraser.

“This is the gift from the plastic industry that keeps on killing,” said Fraser.

Fraser said he believes changing consumer habits is the key, with passage of Eldridge’s bill being a big step toward.

Eldridge is “optimistic” about getting a positive recommendation from the joint House-Senate committee early next year.

Grocery store employees at Stop & Shop, Market Basket, Hannaford, Shaw’s, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods informed The Sun that they all offer cloth, nylon or canvass reusable grocery bags for sale at prices ranging from 99 cents to $3 each. Some of the stores offer cash incentives for using the reusable bags, including Stop & Shop, which gives the consumer 5 cents for each filled reusable bag of groceries. Hannaford just recently ended their reusable grocery bag cash-back promotion, a manager said.

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