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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Medford closes in on plastic bag ban

Medford City Hall is pictured.

An ordinance to ban plastic bags from retail establishments is currently being considered by the Medford City Council and is expected to be passed into law by the end of the year, according to City Councillor John C. Falco Jr.

The drafted ordinance, which is noted on the Sept. 25 meeting agenda of the Medford City Council, bans the provision of “thin-film plastic bags,” which are defined as bags thinner than four thousandths of an inch, at a business’ checkout. Plastic bags used to bag bulk items, frozen foods or meat, or wet materials are exempt.

If passed, the ordinance will take effect 180 days after the vote, and will punish violations with increasing fines, rising to a maximum of $300 per infraction.

Medford City Solicitor Mark Rumley explained that he and Assistant City Solicitor Kimberly Scanlon wrote the ordinance in collaboration with a group of municipal department heads. He said that they created the ordinance by examining and borrowing from ordinances passed by other municipalities throughout Massachusetts.

Massachusetts is one of the national leaders in banning plastic bags, with 65 separate municipalities having bans in place as of May 2018, according to the Massachusetts Sierra Club. Somerville enacted a similar ban in September 2016.

Rumley explained that the interdepartmental group settled on the thickness of bag to be affected by the ban by counting which thickness was most commonly banned. This led to the draft ordinance banning all plastic bags that are four thousandths of an inch or thinner.

Director of Energy and Environment for Medford Alicia Hunt and Energy and Environment intern Carolyn Meklenburg, a Tufts graduate student in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, were part of the group that wrote the ordinance. Hunt said that for a city like Medford with extremely close neighbors, aligning a plastic bag ban with other communities was extremely important.

Hunt also cautioned that the draft does not represent an exact copy of the most recent bans, but instead a version that the group thought would be most effective.

“We wanted to make sure we were building on what they had done ... not assuming that the most recent [ban] was the 'right' way to do it,” Hunt said.

Evidence that the ban is Medford’s own can be seen in the way it plans to punish violators. According to the ordinance’s text, the first instance of a violation of the ordinance will only receive a written warning, and each subsequent violation will result in a fine of $100 more than the last, up to $300. This stands in contrast to Somerville’s ordinance, which has a smaller sliding punishment, peaking at $100, as well as Cambridge’s, which has a flat fine of $300.

According to Rumley, the ban will be enforced by the Medford Board of HealthMaryAnn O’Connor, director of the Board of Health, sat on the group that created the ordinance.

The ordinance is currently waiting to be heard by the Medford City Council Committee of the Whole, according to Rumley, where the councillors will have the chance to edit the document and decide whether it should affect all retail businesses in Medford or only those above an as-yet-undecided square footage.

Falco told the Daily in an email that he supports the ban affecting all businesses and will support small businesses that may be hit harder by the change.

“I am concerned about how complete elimination will potentially impact small business owners,” he said. “The Medford City Council will hold a meeting to discuss these concerns and to help business owners find reasonable, cost-effective alternatives.”

According to Rumley, as part of the process of creating the ordinance, Business and Cultural Liaison Allie Fiske reached out to the Medford Chamber of Commerce as well as local businesses.

Rocco DiRico, the director of community relations at Tufts and a member of the Chamber’s Board of Directors, confirmed this and noted that the Council had also reached out. He indicated that the Chamber chose not to take a formal stance on the issue.

The Medford Chamber of Commerce declined to be interviewed for this article.

Hunt explained that two official comments had been filed with the city by businesses that stand to be impacted by the ordinance. She said that Chicken & Rice Guys had come out in favor of the ban, while regional supermarket chain Wegmans had expressed its opposition.

DiRico explained that though Tufts is committed to sustainability, the university has no official position on the issue. He also noted that the campus would not be affected by the passage of the ordinance.

Tufts Dining [Service] and the bookstore discontinued the use of plastic bags when they were banned by Somerville,” DiRico told the Daily in an email.

Tina Woolston, program director at Tufts’ Office of Sustainability, said that banning thin-film plastic bags is hugely beneficial to American recycling companies. She explained that bags often jam recycling equipment, hurting profitability and efficiency.

With China accepting fewer American recyclables and the American recycling industry running on thin margins, Woolston said that she views ordinances like the one in Medford as hugely important.

“It’s really great that they’re doing it right now, because it will help recycling stay alive as an industry,” she said.

Falco said that he hopes the ordinance will be passed through the council and be enacted by the end of the year. He added that he believes that Medford residents will support and adapt to the ordinance at that point.

“Although some residents feel that a plastic bag ban can be an inconvenience, I think most people recognize that the environmental harm caused by improperly disposed plastic bags is causing significant and drastic changes to our environment,” he said.