TEWKSBURY — As communities around the Commonwealth implement and adjust to the elimination of single-use plastic bags at retail outlets, residents find themselves experiencing a range of emotions. Some are confused, some are stressed, some are angry. Most just take it in stride.
However, reusable bags have been around for a long time and have been offered at retail outlets for years. Any bag can be reusable, but most are made of recycled plastic or canvas and are durable over hundreds of uses.
Retailers have seen the benefit of these bags, using them for branding purposes and creating attractive designs to appeal to a wide audience. Whole Foods pioneered the reusable bag program in 2007 and it caught on quickly.
Sturdy handled bags became a way to eliminate single use plastic bags and created a “way” of shopping, with bags becoming collectible and new designs unveiled seasonally. Self-proclaimed “bagaholics” even collect bags and seek out new shapes and sizes.
Fabric bags, foldable cartons, cooler bags and jute bags are among the myriad choices now, and shoppers are proud of their small step to save the environment.
Retailers have given incentives to shoppers for bringing their own bags for years as well; Whole Foods takes a nickel off of the grocery bill for every bag a customer brings and Trader Joe’s lets shoppers enter to win a chance for a bag of groceries. Some retailers have never offered bags at checkout such as Costco, BJs and Aldi, where bringing your own bag or using cardboard boxes is “just what you do.”
Single use plastic bags were introduced in 1979, so purchases before that time were bundled in paper bags. Department stores had fancy paper handled bags — do you remember the pretty Bonwit Teller bags with the purple flowers? Zayre, Fotomat, Bradlees, and Jordan Marsh had envelope-style paper bags. People put trash in the wastebasket without a liner, or used a paper grocery bag.
As solid waste costs rise for municipalities, addressing the presence of bags in the recycling stream has garnered much attention. Recycling processors, squeezed due to sanctions on China, have been choked off from the main market for purchasing their recycled materials. As a result, alternative markets have put strict requirements on the cleanliness of recycling that it will buy.
Single use plastic “litters” loads and makes them less profitable, as the bags are not recyclable (despite the triangle logo) and catch and jam up processing equipment. Cities and towns are finding their recycling loads are being rejected and as such, their solid waste costs are skyrocketing. This directly impacts the bottom line for communities.
The City of Weymouth put out a notice to residents explaining that the costs of contaminated recycling and how it is trying to keep its trash fees low. Tewksbury and Wilmington currently do not have trash fees, but as part of the general operation of the town, is paid for by property taxes. Communities are sending out mailers, educating residents about what should and should not be put in recycling and emphasizing that single use plastic bags make up a majority of the contamination found in loads.
Local social media forums have lively discussions about the move to reusable bags. To be clear, residents may still take their own plastic bags to use, garbage bags and liners will still be sold, and zipper lock type food bags will still be on store shelves. The restriction is that retailers may not give out single use plastic bags at the point of purchase, be it a restaurant using them for take-out meals or a clothing store, pharmacy or grocery.
While paper bags may be made available, it is up to the discretion of the store to charge or not. For those who have decided to charge for bags, per bylaw guidelines, the purpose is to encourage a “bring your own bag” model. Some folks are getting creative, designing bags to use as fundraisers, such as high school clubs and civic groups.
In communities where these restrictions have been in place for years, the report is that after a short adjustment, residents seem to transition without issue, such as in Salem and Newton. Lowell implemented its ban in January, Tewksbury’s goes into effect April 1, Wilmington will start May 5, Reading, Andover and Burlington all have restrictions in various stages of implementation as well.