Northampton Councilmen Propose to Eliminate Plastic Bags and Styrofoam

Katherine Hazen '18 Contributing Writer 

Northampton City Councilors Jesse M. Adams and Paul D. Spector haved proposed a ban on plastic bags and styrofoam in retail and food businesses this past September.

City council is currently debating the language of the proposal and whether to expand the ban, while some councilors would like to see hard data about the effects of the ban before making a decision.  According to Spector, there is not substantial opposition. Such bans are currently in effect in many cities and states, and some research suggests the bans are environmentally ineffective as well as economically detrimental. However, these bans reduce litter: On average, four to five million bags become litter every year, according to the Worldwatch Institute.

Councilors plan for the ban to take effect on Nov. 1, 2016 if the proposal succeeds. The initiative structures the parameters to effect mainly the incorporated stores or those under the same owner. Specifically, the ban proposes that retail establishments of 2,000 square feet or larger terminate their use of thin film single-use plastic bags with handles less than three milliters, while food establishments of 2,000 square feet or larger substitute their styrofoam containers for any compostable, biodegradable or reusable options.

However, there are many exemptions to the ban, including dry cleaning and newspaper bags, or any bags without handles and food packaging during direct patient care. The proposal also amends for economic hardships some establishments may face with the use of deferments; an establishment may apply for an extension on the use of banned objects for a period of one year if they can demonstrate that the ban would or has caused them “great economic difficulty.” A business may not exceed two extensions. The Northampton Board of Health would enforce the ban and control the hardship deferments and penalties. Spector said that he and Adams wrote the bill to permit easy access to deferment.

These bans have a recent prevalence in major cities as well as locally in Amherst and Brookline. Some other bans – several major cities as well as nearby Amherst and Brookline have banned plastic bags – differ from Northampton’s proposal. Spector asserted that his proposal targets corporations, while most bans target small businesses, as he estimates that stores like Stop and Shop and Big Y account for 95% of the use of plastic bags in Northampton.

In 2012, two economists from the National Center for Policy Analysis examined the economic and environmental effects of the ban on L.A. County. In the county, the affected establishments were non-incorporated, and 100% of these stores reported a rise in unemployment, creating a 10% reduction in employment in the non-incorporated sector. 48% of affected stores reported loss of money in investing in the reusable bags to provide to customers. Ultimately, the affected stores turned to taxing the customers and the ban decreased economic activity and increased unemployment for the non-incorporated sector.

Environmentally, the research argued that the alternatives for plastic bags cost far more energy to produce than they save by combustion; the data showed that paper bags cost three times as much total energy to produce than plastic and only 1% of that energy is recovered through combustion. Spector retorted that paper bags composed of recycled materials are biodegradable and compostable. Further, reusable biodegradable bags must be used 104 times to balance the cost of their production with the payoff of combustion; on average, these bags are used 52 times. Conversely, plastic bags sit in landfills for 10 to 20 years and littering damages animal habitats and poses a real threat to the life of animals, especially in the sea.

Spector emphasized the difficulty and importance of the styrofoam portion of the proposal; expanded polyesterene contains carcinogens that are toxic, and it is not biodegradable. Yet, the substitutes are worse in carbon footprint and are far more expensive. The cost would rise from 14 cents per styrofoam container to 60 cents per replacement unit, according to Spector’s anectdocal evidence. However, much like the recent styrofoam ban in Amherst in which they found 70 % of restaurants did not use styrofoam to begin with, Spector found that of 30 restaurants he and his colleagues conversed with, two of them used styrofoam. One restaurant owner in particular whom Spector chose not to disclose vehemently opposes the ban altogether, especially the styrofoam section.

“I wouldn’t be sponsoring this ban if I believed it would leave a carbon footprint,” Spector said. It is too early to tell the effects of these bans on other cities. Councilors Adams and Spector are to meet with the Chamber of Commerce among other city chambers soon.