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Pittsfield City Council Passes Plastic Bag Ban
By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff
04:03AM / Wednesday, March 27, 2019
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Councilor at Large Earl Persip holds up a compostable plastic bag to show that people will still be able to reuse them.


Rinaldo Del Gallo first petitioned for the ban in 2013.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — After close to six years of debate, the city finally passed a ban on single-use plastic bags Tuesday night.
 
The ban had been proposed in 2013 and has been working its way through the City Council process since. It was first coupled with a ban on Styrofoam, which was later passed in 2015 separate from the bag ban and restricted polystyrene food containers.
 
The bag ban went before the Green Commission and to City Council subcommittee meetings, the latter of which had left it unaddressed for a time. Earlier this year, it made its way to the full council will a full endorsement.
 
However, the ban approved Tuesday night is much different than what was first proposed. At the subcommittee level, Councilor Melissa Mazzeo was successful in petitioning for a provision that allowed for compostable plastic bags as opposed to a full-out ban. That led to the adoption of a 5 cent charge for those who use paper or other single-use bags, which the council did away with Tuesday night.
 
As ordained, the ban is on single-use plastic bags like those given out at the checkout of the grocery store. The companies that offer those may switch to more environmentally-friendly types of plastic bag. And companies do not have to charge 5 cents to use other bags, though some may choose to as they do now. Those provisions were added to the ban much to the chagrin of those who felt the ban should be stronger for the environment's sake.
 
"In the spirit of compromise we are taking the teeth out of this ordinance," said Council Vice President John Krol on Tuesday. "We want them to use reusable bags and this 5-cent charge is a critical piece of that."
 
On the most basic reasoning of the original petition, plastic bags are harmful to the environment and the idea is for the city to do its part to reduce the amount of bags that end up in it. The production of paper bags also comes with negative environmental consequences and the goal of some is to have customers move to reusable bags. The 5-cent charge would serve as a way to discourage the use of single-use bags altogether.
 
"The goal of this plastic bag ban is to have more people use reusable bags. That is the point," Persip said.
 
But some councilors felt the city was overstepping by dictating the pricing and operations for businesses. 
 
"Businesses should be allowed to charge what they want. If they want to give a benefit, a free bag, to a customer then so be it. I just don't believe we have that right," said Ward 4 Councilor Christopher Connell, adding that it would be a stretch for the council to set pricing on gasoline to encourage more walking and bicycling.
 
Ward 1 Councilor Helen Moon responded by citing the deposit on cans and bottles, which has been linked to increased levels of recycling. Councilor at Large Earl Persip cited minimum pricing on tobacco products to discourage use. And Ward 3 Councilor Nicholas Caccamo said it is common for governments to use taxes or other means to encourage policy in the marketplace.
 
"That is a market-based solution to help environmental policy," Caccamo said.
 
The council ultimately agreed to remove the charge by the narrowest margin of 6-5. The removal of the provision was much to the distaste of Councilor at Large Peter White, who felt he had already agreed to compromise at the Ordinance and Rules level, which approved it unanimously when it voted for Mazzeo's provision for compostable plastic.
 
White said there are still concerns with micro-plastics going into the environment.
 
"I don't want to see us compromise on the real main driver that will encourage people to bring their own," White said.
 
Rinaldo Del Gallo, who first filed the petition six years ago, wasn't happy about the charge being removed. He also said that it still isn't clear just how environmentally friendly those compostable plastic bags marketed as such truly are. 
 
"I wish it was with the nickel charge. It would discourage paper. But, it is a big victory," DelGallo said after the meeting when the petition finally passed. "I'm really happy with the unanimous vote."
 
The nickel charge had been added to the petition only after there was support for Mazzeo's pitch to allow compostable single-use bags. Mazzeo's particular concern had been with how the elimination of such bags would impact the lives of citizens. She said many residents use the grocery bags over and over again for various purchases or for lining garbage pails. The compostable bags, however, provide that while still being environmentally friendly, she said.
 
"They make bags that completely breakdown. They are compostable," Mazzeo said, later adding, "If we ban bags like that and they are  not able to have a bag similar to this to use at their home, then they will go and  buy trash can liners, which are plastic."
 

Councilor John Krol felt the removal of a nickel charge for single-use bags depressed the effectiveness of the ban.
That argument had already won in the debate of the petition at subcommittee.
 
In the end, the entire council supported it even if not everybody agreed with each provision. Krol said despite the charge being removed, he feels the overall ordinance is a step in the right direction.
 
However, he also believes that places like Big Y that have taken steps to phase out plastic bags show the market is already moving in that direction on its own.
 
"I think ultimately we've been hearing a lot of about the market and the fact of the matter is the market has spoken and is speaking about this," Krol said.
 
Moon also agreed with the sentiments that she'd have preferred a charge. She said with some 380 billion plastic bags being used yearly in the United States, there is plenty of room for people to reduce. But she also voiced concern for impacts such a ban could ultimately have on vulnerable populations.
 
Connell and Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Morandi, who had both leaned more in opposition throughout the debate, voted in favor of it because of the changes. But both expressed that they'd rather have focused as much time on other topics.
 
"We've spent way too much time on this," Morandi said.
 
Del Gallo was elated with the vote and he praised the City Council for bringing it into effect, particularly for Caccamo who hadn't spoken much during the debate but had done much of the work on crafting the language of the ordinance behind the scenes. 
 
"This is very much a trade-off debate," Caccamo said. "I think this is also a pragmatic ordinance. We are allowing the compostable bags as a compromise."
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