Credit: Needham Observer

On Jan. 1, Needham joins approximately 160 other towns and cities across the state that have banned the use of plastic bags. On New Year’s Day, the ban applies only to stores 3,500 square feet or larger. On July 1, the ban will extend to all Needham retail establishments.

This bylaw change passed by a nearly unanimous voice vote at the May Town Meeting. The proposal, brought by a citizens petition, was presented by Green Needham’s Plastic Waste Reduction team co-chairs Rob Fernandez and Kathy Raiz. It had earned the endorsement of many organizations in town, including the Select Board, prior to Town Meeting.

At Town Meeting, Select Board Vice Chair Kevin Keane said similar measures in other towns have reduced plastic bag waste by 70%.

In 2017, the Select Board passed a voluntary ban that focused on single-use plastic bags. It had overwhelming compliance at first, but since then single-use plastic reappeared and large retailers such as CVS, Roche Brothers and Sudbury Farms began using a thicker plastic bag.  

“That just exacerbated the problem,” Raiz said, “because now you’re using more plastic to create a bag that does not have a practical way to reuse.”

Trader Joe’s on Highland Avenue did not reintroduce plastic bags. According to Greenpeace, the company banned all plastic bags nationwide in 2019. 

In addition to a host of environmental ills that include harming wildlife and releasing toxins into the water supply, plastic bags make all recycling more difficult. “If people bring plastic bags to the dump and put them in with other commingled plastics, the bags actually gum up the recycling machines,” said Raiz.

The town advises people to bring plastic bags back to the store where they originated, though few do. It might not matter much. “Most of the containers at local supermarkets make their way to landfills where they are incinerated or dumped in with the rest of the trash,” said Raiz.

Green Needham surveyed store owners in early 2023. Of 75 businesses surveyed, 19 responded. Three used only plastic bags, six used only paper and the remainder used both. Two business owners were concerned with the additional cost of paper bags. 

Of five businesses surveyed this week by the Observer, only one knew about the impending ban. One owner expressed concern that some customers will “become irate” and that business from foot traffic will be lost because they will have no way to carry home their purchases. All of those surveyed asked that their names not be used in this story.

Plastic bags will not disappear completely from Needham stores in 2024. There are a few exceptions to the ban, including dry-cleaner bags and bags used to package deli meats or produce. 

Take-out food will no longer be packaged in plastic. “There are workarounds,” Raiz said. “You can use a paper bag reinforced with cardboard.”

Paper bags have less of an environmental impact than plastic, but they are not ideal. “Paper bags also have an environmental impact in terms of tree cutting and all the water that’s used to make the bags,” said Raiz. 

Many districts have placed a nominal fee — usually about 10 cents — on all bags. Los Angeles has done that since 2010, and the entire state of California adopted paper bag fees in 2015. Dallas and the U.K. have similar policies. 

In Massachusetts, many similar bills are pending in the Legislature.

“There is a bill that is being pushed for by our senator, Rebecca Rausch, that includes a plastic bag ban and fees on paper bags,” said Raiz. “Our goal is to have people bring reusable bags to the store.”

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