BOSTON - The Massachusetts Senate is now scheduled to vote on not one, but two consumer product bans on Wednesday in its final formal session of the year.
The chamber teed up legislation Monday that would forbid retail businesses from providing customers with single-use plastic bags, placing it on an agenda that already includes a House-approved bill banning flavored tobacco products and imposing a 75 percent tax on e-cigarettes.
Under the bill (S 459), stores in most cases could only offer recyclable paper bags or reusable bags for a fee of at least 10 cents at the point of sale. Retail establishments would be required to remit 5 cents for each paper bag sold to the state, which would in turn be directed to communities to fund bag ban enforcement, recycling promotion, waste reduction and other local environmental efforts.
The Senate has approved bag ban language in the past, and Sen. Jamie Eldridge said the version teed up for Wednesday (S 2410) "is definitely a stronger bill, though, in a number of ways."
The main difference from past legislation -- and from the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Committee bill (H 3945) that is pending before the House Ways and Means Committee -- is the inclusion of a fee that retailers would be required to charge for a reusable or recycled paper bag at checkout.
Environmental advocates slammed the Environment Committee in July for dropping the fee from the original bill. Eldridge, the Senate sponsor of the original bill, said the charge is "really critical."
"If you're really serious about not only reducing plastic bags but the paper bags, that 10 cent fee really has been shown in certain cities in other states to impact behavior," he told the News Service after speaking at an unrelated renewable energy event.
"I think there's been a large focus so far in this session around climate change, but we're seeing from consumer waste, the impact on our oceans, our communities, our streets, our parks, and I would argue one of the biggest sort of polluters, if you will, are plastic bags," Eldridge, an Acton Democrat, said. "It's a pretty straightforward idea to really reduce plastic pollution by banning plastic bags."
The Senate Ways and Means Committee drafted its proposal as a new bill and reported it on a part of unrelated legislation (H 459) focusing on land protection. The committee voted with two Republicans dissenting to advance the ban, and the Senate adopted an order setting an amendment deadline of 5 p.m. Monday.
More than 120 Massachusetts communities already have adopted their own bag bans, according to the Sierra Club.
Sen. Michael Rodrigues, the Ways and Means Committee chair, told the News Service that a statewide policy would be easier for businesses to follow than different restrictions in nearby or even neighboring communities.
"We're hoping that the local municipalities that have been asking us for years to enact a uniform statewide ban, those voices will be heard," Rodrigues said. "It's uniform amongst every community, so those retail facilities, the big-box retailers and grocery stores in multiple communities, have one set of rules to abide by."
Ways and Means members decided to include the 10-cent fee after meetings, Rodrigues said, that showed there was "pretty much unanimous" support among environmental and business groups for the fee.
Deb Pasternak, director of the Sierra Club's Massachusetts Chapter, said environmental groups see the fee as "key to avoid single-use bags" and cut down on their polluting impact.
"We stand ready to continue to work with all stakeholders including legislators, retailers and the many municipalities that have already implemented comprehensive bag legislation," Pasternak said in a statement. "We want to craft a bill that is strong and works for everyone."
The bill would exempt small retailers from charging fees for paper and reusable bags until Jan. 1, 2022. Rodrigues said lawmakers would revisit that policy, intended as a compromise to limit the impact on small businesses, as its expiration approaches "to see if there's a need to extend that."
The Senate bill forbids communities from imposing any additional limitations beyond those included in the legislation.
"The bill that was sent to the House did not have the fee, and it also had preemption for any current city policies," Eldridge said. "This bill has preemption, but only for anything that's above what this bill does, so that creates a state uniform policy."
A plastic bag ban has historically faced a cool reception in the House. Conference committee negotiators dropped the provision from a $2.4 billion environmental bond bill last summer and from discussions over the fiscal year 2017 budget.
National Federation of Independent Business Massachusetts Director Christopher Carlozzi criticized the Senate's push, warning that a ban "will only end up increasing expenses for both small businesses and consumers."
"It will negatively impact Main Street retailers already operating on razor thin margins," Carlozzi said in a statement. "Including a new bag tax to influence consumer behavior will financially strain shoppers trying to live within household budgets. Instead of banning plastic bags, the Senate should look for ways to promote and educate the public on existing plastic bag recycling programs."
State House News Service