STONEHAM - Town Meeting on Monday night adopted a plastic bag ban that threatens local businesses with fines, should they continue to package up customer purchases in single-use plastic bags after May 1.
The subject of new fewer than four separate amendments, the plastic bag ban bylaw was overwhelmingly adopted by citizens after an extended discussion during the special assembly in Town Hall's Auditorium this week.
In total, according to Town Moderator Jeanne Craigie, only two residents cast a vote against the measure in its final form. However, a series of earlier votes on proposed amendments to the initiative proved to be much closer.
Ultimately, the final bylaw approved by Stoneham's citizens not only adds new exemptions for the town's non-profit organizations, it also includes a series of modified protections for local merchants and businesses.
For example, under the original plan, all grocery stores, restaurants and other effected businesses would have been subjected to the new plastic bag prohibition as of next January. However, under a successful amendment proposed by Stoneham Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Megan Day, that enactment period was extended out to a six-month or late spring of 2020 timeframe.
The definition of a small business, which can now seek a waiver from the bag ban, was also altered to allow any commercial enterprise with fewer than 50 workers. The original text called for a small business to be defined as any entity that operated on premises with less than 2,500 square feet of space.
According to Day, not a single local merchant had approached her to advocate for the defeat of the plastic bag ban, but they had expressed a number of concerns about the scope of the ordinance.
"They all together support the ban -- or they didn't tell me otherwise," she said. "They just want to see this done in a way that's financially feasible."
Other bylaw modifications that were passed as a result of the Chamber of Commerce amendment included the following:
• Small businesses, upon submission of a written request to the town administrator, may seek an unlimited exemption from the bag ban (previously that exemption was only available for 90-days after the regulations went into effect);
• Local merchants no longer have an obligation to notify their customers about the proper sanitation of reusable bags, which could become contaminated with bacteria and fungus if not disinfected;
• Businesses may provide customers with more durable plastic bags with a thickness greater than 2.25 millimeters, as opposed to the 3 millimeter standard originally proposed.
Washington Street resident Marcia Wengen, a longtime volunteer at Stoneham's Senior Center, also convinced the assembly to adopt another amendment, which exempts all 137 of Stoneham's non-profit groups from having to comply with the ban.
According to Wengen, she felt the change was warranted due to the undue hardship the bylaw would place on organizations like the Friends of the Stoneham Senior Center, which accepts plastic bag donations in order to package up purchases made at a seasonal Senior Center barn sale fundraiser.
"We're an organization that sells greeting cards for 25 cents, paperback books for 75 cents, and jewelry for 25 cents to $1. When we place those items in plastic bags for customers, we'd be liable for increasing mandatory fines," said Wengen.
"I want you to think about church fairs and girl scouts selling cookies. It's likely that for some of Stoneham's 137 non-profits, there will be no impact from this [bylaw as proposed]. But given the lack of an opportunity for people to weigh in on this article, I ask you to approve this amendment," she continued.
Yet another amendment that would have allowed the distribution of so-called compostable bags failed.
Article 8 was introduced to the Special Town Meeting warrant as a citizen's petition thanks to the efforts of Marble Street resident Phyllis Warren and Finance Board member Cory Mashburn.
Addressing the crowd this week, Warren decried the environmental havoc being wreaked by plastic waste like single-use grocery bags, which are commonly tossed by consumers into the trash just moments after returning home with groceries, clothing, and other retail items.
According to Warren, all of Stoneham's immediate neighbors have similarly placed prohibitions on the distribution of plastic bags, and as of this June, nearly 110 municipalities across the state had enacted such bans.
"The bylaw were are voting on addresses an environmental crisis. Single-use plastic bags are one of the most unnecessary and damaging forms of plastic pollution," said Warren. "They pollute oceans, harm wildlife, litter beaches, contaminate food, and directly harm industries like tourism and recreation."
"According to our DPW, Stoneham alone produces over 2,000 tons of recycling every year at a cost of $160,000. Much of that [cost] is due to the number of plastic bags that are erroneously placed into our [recycling bins]," she added.
Unlike regulations promulgated in Massachusetts communities like Boston, where businesses must charge a mandatory 5 cent fee for paper or reusable plastic bags, Stoneham's proposed ordinance is silent to the issue of passing those costs onto the consumer.
Under the penalty provisions, to be enforced by Town Administrator Dennis Sheehan or his designee, businesses would be issued a warning ticket for a first violation, a $50 fine for a second infraction, and a $100 ticket for all subsequent offenses.
The regulations also include exemptions clauses for several classes of bags, including those used to shield newspapers from the elements, plastic wrapped around clothing at dry cleaning businesses, and supermarket produce and meat bags.