The Cambridge Plastic Bag Ban Begins Thursday

It's the largest Massachusetts city to implement such a ban.

On Thursday, Cambridge will become the largest and latest Massachusetts municipality to join the list of locales that bans the use of plastic bags with handles at retail establishments. Under the new ordinance, consumers will have the option of providing their own bags or paying a minimum of ten cents at checkout for a paper bag or a reusable bag. The new fee on bags applies to all retail establishments, from grocery stores like Whole Foods to clothing stores like Macy’s to small local businesses like the Harvest Co-Op in Central Square.

The ordinance is the first in any Massachusetts city or town that institutes a charge to acquire a bag while shopping. The city hopes the small fee will encourage consumers to use their own reusable bags when shopping while not being high enough to deter shoppers from making purchases in Cambridge outright. The bag fee will go to the retailers themselves, not the Cambridge general fund, and is subject to the state sales tax.

The Cambridge City Council passed the ordinance last year, giving stores a year to exhaust their supply of plastic bags and prepare for the changeover. The new ordinance does not require retail establishments to stock bags at all if they do not already carry them.

Retailers who violate the ordinance could be fined upwards of $300 per day for violating the ordinance, but in an interview with the ordinance’s chief enforcer, it sounds like the city is not looking to issue fines on day one.

“We’re not going to be too strict. We’re not trying to be punitive. We want retailers to see the merit of the ordinance. We haven’t run into any businesses who say they aren’t complying. Most have expressed hesitancy and they don’t know what to do,” said Michael Orr, waste reduction program manager for the Cambridge Department of Public Works.

The Cambridge business community has been largely receptive to the bag banning ordinance, according to Orr.

“A lot of businesses are very enthusiastic about this. They’re surprised it took this long. Other businesses, more corporate businesses, they’re replicating what they’ve done in California. They’re happy to do it and reduce waste. Some small businesses are taken aback by it, but we’re explaining to them that this will reduce waste in general,” said Orr.

The Harvest Co-Op grocery store in Central Square is so excited about the new ordinance that they stopped using plastic shopping bags over a month ago and reduced the price of their reusable bags to 99 cents.

“We’ve jumped right on board and totally believe in this initiative. We hope this makes a difference in the environment,” said Chris Durking, director of membership and community relations for Harvest.

Harvest recently launched a campaign to collect extra reusable bags from customers to distribute to seniors and low income people who frequent their stores.

The Cambridge City Council, ever concerned with how progressive proposals can sometimes exacerbate economic inequality, added an amendment to the ordinance that required the city to purchase 10,000 reusable bags for the city’s senior and low-income residents. The bags are being designed by Cambridge public school students, and the city will distribute the bags through the Cambridge Housing Authority and at local food pantries.

The ordinance passed in 2015 on an 8-1 vote in the council, even though it faced stiff resistance from retailers when it was being considered. The Massachusetts Food Association, which represents grocery stores and supermarkets, filed a formal letter with the council expressing a concern that the new rule would force potential customers to shop outside of Cambridge.

In an interview with Boston, Bill Rennie of the Massachusetts Retailers Association, another group representing retail businesses of all shapes and sizes in Massachusetts that opposed the ordinance, said the ban would create headaches for retailers because it’s part of a growing patchwork of regulations on bags across Massachusetts that require retailers to accommodate a widening set of rules depending on where they do business. There is a statewide bag ban bill from Rep. Lori Ehrlich pending on Beacon Hill, but it does not appear to have a bright future in the current legislative session, according to those close to the process. A rival bill, filed by Rep. Paul J. Donato, aims to block municipalities from passing bans on plastic bags and other containers.

Rennie said that the other problem with a ban on plastic bags is that it ignores the fact that bags are often not simply used once and thrown away.

“In my household and others I know people reuse the bags many different ways: trash bag liners, to clean up after their pets, to store garbage in the car. There are plenty of uses out there for these bags after they leave the store,” said Rennie.

Cambridge’s chief proponent of the bill, City Councilor Dennis Carlone, is excited about it being another major step in a statewide push to ban plastic bags. “The real goal is to get the state to move on something like this, then you have true impact,” said Carlone.

In an interview with Boston, Carlone said he hopes the ordinance prompts people to think about how they use disposable one-use items like plastic cutlery and food containers.

“The reason for the ordinance is pretty important: We’re trying to keep as much plastic out of the environment as possible,” said Carlone.

While Cambridge’s ban on bags has been in the works since it was proposed in 2007, other nearby municipalities like Newton and Brookline have adopted similar approaches since then, making it difficult for consumers to simply avoid a ban by going to the next town over. Somerville’s plastic bag ban, which passed last November and does not include a mandatory fee, goes into effect in September.