Lowell Will Have a Plastic Bag Ban! And, On Leading From the Front

Lowell Will Have a Plastic Bag Ban! And, On Leading From the Front

If plastic bag ban enthusiasts tuned into Lowell City Council last night hoping to have an early evening, you were sorely mistaken. Two motions taken out of order—as described by Dick Howe in his CC report but which does not do any justice to the length of time the first motion out of order took—pushed the Subcommittee reports until, if I remember correctly, after 8:30pm. TBH the softball field thing took twice as long as the marijuana-in-public motion, which is kind of surprising, but not.

For the group of people who were there to speak on or support the plastic bag ban (including me), it was a marathon night. I’m not sure if subcommittee reports, like motions, can be taken out of order, but it was a little annoying that two motions with registered speakers were taken out of order but the subcommittee report which included recommended motions, which also had a few registered speakers, was not. (Note to City Councilors.)

Regardless, it was worth it. The plastic bag ban (limited to 3,000 square foot retail locations, in all likelihood) passed 6 votes to 2 (Elliott, Conway opposed, C. Mercier absent)…though specifically, it was a motion to send the ban to the law dept and CM to draft an ordinance to bring back to the Council. You can read up on the flat out details from Dick regarding the discussion, he always does a thorough job. What I would like to talk about is the concept of leading from the front or leading from behind. Especially because the voice of “leading from behind” came from a state Senate candidate, and I think it was noteworthy.

Really, all suggestions from C. Rodney Elliott, who I will note is a former EPA, now DEP employee *rolls eyes*, went down in flames, except for the “noncontroversial” one that only says something on paper. First, he expressed he wasn’t interested in supporting a local bag ban. His excuse? Well, it needs to be addressed regionally, and since there is a (slim) shot at passing a statewide ban on plastic bags, we shouldn’t do it here. Insert conservative mumbo jumbo about unfair competition and whatnot. I guess Westford, which only recently passed a ban, is a total chump amiright?

The thing is, there is a point to be made here. Of course a regional (really, statewide) ban would be more effective than piecemeal city-by-city, town-by-town ordinances which all say something slightly different. So if you’re Market Basket in Chelmsford with no ban, and also in Lowell which has one, the inconsistency could be problematic. Then again, you could argue that for a large retail company like MB, ramping up alternative bag options in a few towns before implementing all at once across the state has some strong advantages.

But even if you take the regional argument at face value, or the “competitive disadvantage” argument for stores in towns with bans, and I do not do so in either case, Rodney Elliott is running for an office in the state legislature. You’d think he’d know a little bit about the body he wants to join, right?

At a minimum, waiting for the statewide ban to pass is like going to Vegas and assuming you’re going to come home with more money than you left with. It’s a gamble, at best.

The state legislature is totally dysfunctional, and its processes kept deliberately opaque, particularly in the House. Having a bill stuck and then die in committee is far more the norm than is passing something useful. A friend of mine who’s a leader in Progressive Massachusetts wrote on FB just this morning, that “the death of the Schoolhouse Rock composer reminded me of how I still want someone to make a ‘How a bill doesn’t become a law’ cartoon for me tailored to the MA Legislature.” His comments are filled with sage nods of agreement from other activists. Also, rest in peace, Bob Dorough…there will be no more kings [like you].

A bill could have popular constituent support, even a majority of the legislature as cosponsors, as recently snarked by a state legislator, and still die. The chances for the statewide plastic bag ban are tenuous at best. There is a looming deadline for the current state legislative two-year session, end of July, and a lot of bills still being worked on frantically by activists and legislative cosponsors alike, and I know this because Solidarity Lowell’s parent organization, Progressive MA, does a lot of legwork on legislative bills, and we keep on top of that activity as part of the organization. The fact is that in the end, you are at the mercy of the whims of the Speaker of the House for Life, DeLeo, who let’s just say is not progressive nor does he seem to care what the state of Massachusetts actually wants.

Several of the speakers and Councilors argued that a Lowell plastic bag ban, especially a “gateway city” of our size, could be the tipping point needed to push that statewide ban. And they’re right—sometimes you can prod the legislature that way, because if they don’t pass anything they lose control of the issue entirely to local control, and they do not like that.

(And to note: Elliott proposed a noncontroversial do-nothing alternative: a resolution from the Council stating support for the statewide ban bill. Wow. Let’s send them a letter, shall we? That’ll show ’em! That also passed, if I recall unanimously, and I guess it can’t hurt, but it’s still just a letter. And why do I feel, after almost two decades of watching Elliott on the Council, that if he were a state Senator with this ban bill in front of him, he would not vote to support it, citing the pain to businesses and all that nonsense? I do not trust him. He has flip flopped before so many times and his heart is far right Republican so far as anyone can glean from his Council votes. You’ll notice he always has an excuse for voting against the progressive or even moderately liberal position. I wonder if he realizes just how transparent he is.)

So all this is to get to my main point: local plastic bag ban proponents, including the original maker of the motion, Councilor Cirillo, want to lead from the front, and do the right thing as soon as possible and get something in place that will do some good now. While people like Councilor Elliott are content, apparently, to lead from behind and wait for the state to do something. Which in all probability based on where the bill is now, and the way the legislature operates, is absolutely nothing.

I’m not sure what else to call that, but it sure ain’t “leadership.” Certainly not the kind I want to send to the Massachusetts state Senate.

But let’s not stop there. Besides this very obvious excuse for doing nothing/leading from behind, it was not the only weirdness from Councilor Elliott last night. After Elliott had already made his objections to the ban motion on grounds of waiting for the state/making Lowell businesses less competitive, he proposed a very strange amendment to the bag ban motion that he called a “compromise.” Which was the wrong term for it but more on that in a moment.

It went down like this. After all the speakers who had signed up in support of the ban were finished, Elliott asked for the Council to allow another speaker who had not signed up to speak. When they agreed, the COO of a company from Billerica, Michael Vin of GXT-Green, stepped up to the mic.

What followed was a straight up sales pitch to the Council, complete with slick marketing packets which included some of their products, namely, plastic bag alternatives. Now, I don’t doubt that this company, GXT-Green, which claims its bags can degrade in the sun in a lab-tested 240 days, and also produces other biodegradable bags that can be composted, manufactures what he says it does. Vin is also mentioned, briefly, in the subcommittee report, where he “handed out packets” touting his product there. I’m not sure if he came to the subcommittee on his own, or if someone invited him. Given that Elliott asked for him to speak at Council, I could hazard a guess Elliott invited him to the subcommittee meeting prior, but that’s a guess.

The weirdness came after Vin spoke and handed out his packets. Elliott seemed suddenly to find enthusiasm in amending the ban motion to include [these?] biodegradable bags somehow. It wasn’t clear how, Elliott was muddled on how this would be part of the ban. And it also wasn’t clear if he wanted to include a general biodegradable bag in the ordinance, or specifically GXT-Green’s…I got the impression he was enamored of GXT, he kept holding up the bag like it was a talisman, but it wasn’t clear.

The true compromise was demonstrated by none other than Councilor John Leahy. To his credit, he spotted how the 3,000 square foot limit to the motion as discussed was the compromise! Leahy noted that even if we ban the few large businesses in Lowell from giving out plastic bags, we would still have a plastic bag pollution problem, since mom and pop stores could still use them, and we have a lot of those. (Banning plastic bags at large stores and not small shops is largely about not burdening our locally owned businesses, but a lot of our plastic bag litter is not from your MB or Target.)

Leahy is exquisitely correct here. He wondered why we couldn’t ban plastic bags outright for all stores. I would add restaurants too…as a frequent eater of takeout, I can say most of my plastic bags come from restaurants. Of course, for a smaller store or local restaurant, bag alternatives which cost more are a bigger burden than for large chains, proportionately, and hence the exception. We do have a larger problem which includes your local corner store or favorite takeout place. I have some thoughts on that if you care to keep reading later, but he’s not wrong.

So, to sum up, no Councilor Elliott, weirdly pushing someone’s sales pitch for a commercial alternative to plastic bags—alternatives which have a lot of issues, like a bag stuck up in a tree degrading for 240 days is still ugly, and many bags end up underground or in deep water or under my porch with no access to sunlight—is not a compromise to banning the bags. The plastic bag ban as proposed is the compromise, and we actually have more work to do on addressing other sources of plastic bags besides grocery stores or Target. SMDH.

If you’re still with me, I’m impressed. This post got so much longer than I expected, I’m almost tired of writing it; so, bravo. Glutton for punishment and all that.

I have some thoughts along the lines of what to do with the problem C. Leahy pointed out. I do understand why we would start with a 3,000 square foot ban. I know a lot of owners of small businesses around Lowell and it’s not like they are flush with extra money most of the time. I will note that a lot of the vendors and small businesses I frequent in Lowell do actually already use alternatives to plastic bags…often sturdy paper bags with handles. But many restaurants, and your average corner store, as mentioned, are endless sources of cheap plastic bags used to carry out their wares.

I feel like here, instead of a stick, maybe a carrot could start the ball rolling. Maybe the city could start with a program to educate our small businesses. Or even creating a whole cool marketing program around reducing plastic bags! For instance, teaching employees at the register to ask if customers need a bag, instead of automatically reaching for one if there are only a few items. Having a poster at each register asking a pithy question like “Hey planetary citizen, do you really need that plastic bag??” Or if someone is ordering takeout, reminding the customer they can to bring their own box or bag. If our local businesses did this, you’d be surprised how many people would not bother with a plastic bag or remember to bring their own reusable bag.

The city could also do research on affordable alternatives, and offer an option for local businesses to buy non-plastic bags through the city for a cheaper price (the city could negotiate a better per-bag cost due to its purchasing size). A buying program like this could make alternatives cheap enough to allow local businesses to switch without hurting their bottom line. Or, if either the cost can’t be brought down enough, or the city wants to really get biz owners to switch, it could subsidize the cost of the bags. The city could offer the first X number of businesses a year’s worth of free alternative bags, or just a lowered price so that a better alternative is cheaper than the ubiquitous plastic bag.

The city could also give away or sell cloth reusable bags to the public, at City Hall, at events, and so on, and educate the public about bringing their own bags and the benefits we all get. I can name a couple off the top of my head: less plastic bags littering my front garden or in local trees; it’s easier to carry a decent cloth bag full of groceries than it is those nasty plastic bags; the decreased cost to the city (and our tax burden) of having plastic bags caught in the recycle machines which means the city gets fined.

Of course, many of these things would need funding from the city, and how much would depend on what the city decided to do. But I bet you could pay for most of it from the $150,000/year fines from our waste management company for plastic bags snarled in their machines. Imagine if we could reduce or eliminate those fines by eliminating our dependence on plastic bags. The plastic bag issue is a collective action problem, and the reason we have government is to help solve these problems that are bigger than any one person’s choices. We could, in actuality, innovate…and, even, lead from the front.

7 thoughts on “Lowell Will Have a Plastic Bag Ban! And, On Leading From the Front

  1. The nifty Trader Joe’s cloth bags are labeled Made in Lowell Mass: well-made, last forever, wash well AND boost our manufacturing industry right at home. If we contracted with them for good looking bags that promote local arts and businesses, we would win on a number of fronts. Does anyone know who makes them?

  2. Love the post- I’m excited that you’re back at it! I wanted to see if you were going to be doing guest posts or interviews with any of the 3rd district or State Senate candidates.

    1. Thanks! And I’ll be looking at the various races as I can find the time, but hopefully at a minimum will be doing my homework with the candidates at the top of my list, to decide for myself who I am voting for! So I will be sure to post my thoughts as I do. I’m partway decided, or at least narrowed down, and with 12 candidates in the 3rd district race I could never find the time to interview all of them…but I’ll see what I can rustle up.

  3. Sheila, I feel like I should know that and probably did at one point, at least if it’s the same company. There was a Lowell company making Market Basket bags at one point, and I miss those bags cuz they were really pretty on top of being durable. I don’t see MB selling them any more so I’m not sure why. But yes, I’m certain the city could look into that.

    1. Thanks Gail! I remembered vaguely something about that but didn’t want to speak out of turn in case I got it wrong.

  4. Lynne! Blast from the past! Wilmington just passed their ban as did Andover. My town is ramping up next and the count is up to 75 cities and towns that have passed bans. Large retailers know this is coming and are making changes- in fact some are using the change as a way to show their environmental awareness instead of fighting-hey it’s all marketing! Having just cleaned up 275 bags of trash on Earth Day, including pulling bags out of our pond, the Shawshee River and bag flowers from the trees, we will be watching Lowell and our other Merrimack Valley neighbors as they progress on this issue! Hope you are well!

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