By Seth Daniel
City leaders, business owners and members of the community are preparing for what might be the first big debate of the year – whether or not to ban plastic shopping bags in Chelsea.
Already, several municipalities have taken the step to ban the common, thin plastic shopping bag given out at almost every store in the City. Boston banned bags late last year, and their new ordinance will start later this year. In Chelsea, some of the larger supermarkets and businesses are ready to debate with environmental leaders about something that comes down to evaluating the cost vs. benefit.
Council President Damali Vidot and Councillor Enio Lopez have initiated the conversation with a Committee on Conference that will meet on Tuesday, Jan. 23, to have an initial discussion.
“It’s a topic Councillor Lopez and I have been entertaining for a few months,” said Vidot. “Seeing as though we are an Environmental Justice community, I think we should be doing everything in our power to support our environment. We have plastic bags everywhere in the city – on the ground, stuck in trees, flying into our waters, and posing a threat to animals. If we minimized their usage and/or charged per bag, we can hopefully get people to ‘think differently’ about our dependency on plastic.
“However, it isn’t something I want to change overnight,” she continued. “I want residents and business owners to bring their voices to the table and share their concerns and be a part of the conversation so that people aren’t impacted from one day to the other, if it does pass.”
Vidot said she hopes that a side conversation amidst the debate can be how to take more ownership of the City by littering less.
On the business side of things, Al Calvo of Compare Supermarkets said his market uses about 140,000 plastic bags per month, which is about 1.7 million plastic bags per year. They cost about 2 cents each, and his store pays about $34,000 per year for plastic bags.
A paper bag, he said, is about 9 cents per bag – resulting in an increased yearly cost to him of $85,000 for bags. The reusable heavy plastic bags, he said, cost a whopping 15 cents per bag. Many times, he said, customers forget to bring it back for re-use – and often substitute paper bags for the forgotten reusable.
The bottom line is this is an additional cost for the store owner, in addition to taxes, health care costs, minimum wage, and other costs,” he said. “In a very price competitive environment which our company faces, such as competition from that little corner store a mile away called Market Basket, we will either absorb the cost, which impacts profitability or raise prices to absorb the additional cost. Raising prices risks losing customers to Market Basket. Although we have other competitive advantages, price is still paramount in the eyes of the customer. It’s another potential death blow to the small business.”
Calvo said the discussion should focus on the tradeoffs between the environmental benefits and the added costs to business and/or customers.
Sergio Jaramillo, interim president of the Chelsea Chamber, said his personal view is that he supports anything to get rid of the plastic bags that litter the city and dirty up the business districts.
“I have seen the effects of plastic bags floating everywhere, and this is in particularly true in our own neighborhoods, where uniformed individuals leave them on unassigned places,” he said. “I understand that one of the consequences will be a higher cost to the merchant as it needs to provide an alternative to bags and may be passed on to the consumer and reflected in higher merchandise prices. It could be said this is the ‘cost of doing business.’”
Jaramillo said he thinks the solution is more global, with the plastics industry needing to come up with a better alternative.
“The industry as a whole needs to retool plastics and come up with cost efficient alternatives, such as fast-biodegradable materials that will minimize the impact on our ecosystem,” he said.
GreenRoots Director Roseann Bongiovanni said she also agrees that the ban is the right way to go.
“We have been talking to the City Council and other leaders in the community about this,” she said. “We really want to see the City go in that direction to ban these bags. We’ve received concerns from people who carry these bags from Market Basket and the supermarkets – especially people who are transit-dependent – but I think those concerns can be overcome.”
Bongiovanni said she is in favor of the thicker reusable bags, and allowing merchants to charge for them. She said a slow rollout would be best if such a ban passes.
“I think it will be like the trans-fat ban,” she said. “There really has to be a time when there is an education piece that starts it out.”
Joe Mahoney, a resident of Admiral’s Hill and member of the Chamber, said he tends to have a ‘green’ opinion and he would support eliminating the bags.
“I see the bags flying around all the time,” he said. “If you can recycle them or get a reusable plastic bag, I think it would be better for the city. When it comes to plastic vs. paper, I have to put myself more on the paper side. Unfortunately, plastic is a lot less expensive though.”