Businesses in Watertown will no longer be able to give customers single-use plastic bags when the ordinance approved by the Town Council takes effect next year.
Tuesday night, the Council deliberated for more than an hour on details of the legislation, called the Bring Your Own Bag Ordinance, before passing it 8-0. Councilor Ken Woodland voted “present.”
The ban will go into effect on July 1, 2017. Businesses will be able to sell paper bags for a small charge to customers or offer reusable bags for sale. A single-use bag is considered one less than 4 mils (thousands of an inch) in thickness.
Those businesses violating the ban can be fined $100 for the first offense, $200 for the second and $300 for the third more more offense. Businesses can apply for a 6 month hardship exemption if they have a large stock of bags to use up.
The ban was first presented to the council by a citizens group called ReThink Plastic nearly three years ago. The group proposed encouraging people to use reusable bags, and ban the use of the thin plastic bags commonly seen at supermarkets and pharmacies.
Many bags end up in the Charles River in Watertown, and find there way to the ocean and cause harm to the environment, members of the group said.
Some residents opposed the ban. One said such a move would be the Town Council acting like a nanny, legislating what people can do. Resident John Labadini said the plastic bag ban was like other changes in town, which he only heard about through the grapevine after the issue has already moved far along toward approval.
“I am not pro plastic. My concern is we can do it better,” said Labadini, who added he would rather see the town focus on collecting household recyclables every week rather of every other week.
One man who opposed the ban at earlier meetings, Russ Arico, said he likes the new compromised version which also includes education of consumers about the need to wash reusable bags to prevent employees from getting food-borne illnesses.
Many expressed concern about how such a ban would impact small businesses in town. Joan Blaustein, a member of ReThink Plastic, said the group reached out to a number of businesses.
“We talked to Target and CVS and they have already encountered bans in other communities, so they are ready,” Blaustein said. “We also talked to other businesses – Russo’s, Fastashi, Town Diner, Arax – and they were in support.”
Missak Ourfalian, owner of Massis Bakery in Coolidge Square, said he has mixed feelings.
“I am not against the ban, but I have concerns about my business,” Ourfalian said. “A lot of people come into my business from out of town, and if they are not familiar with the ban it might effect my business in an adverse way.”
Councilor Woodland said he too spoke to a lot of businesses, and found many did not want to see a plastic bag ban. He proposed a small business exemption, so the ban would only apply to businesses more than 3,000 square feet in size or with three or more locations in Massachusetts.
The Council split on this with some councilors wanting the ban to apply to all businesses so it would have maximum impact. Councilor Aaron Dushku noted that at a previous meeting one small market in East Watertown reported pending $20,000 a year on plastic bags.
Ultimately the amendment lost 6-3, with Woodland, Angeline Kounelis and Vincent Piccirilli voting for the small business exemption.
Who should enforce the ban also came up for discussion. Earlier versions of the proposal called for the town’s Health Department to enforce it. Health Director Deborah Rosati said she would like to have her staff focus on food safety inspections, and noted that her department does not deal with many businesses that would be subject to the ban.
Labadini said he thinks town employees would be put in a tough position.
“You are asking town employees to take on the role of watching their neighbors and turning them in,” Labadini said.
The proposal that came forward Tuesday called for the ban to be enforced by: “The Town Manager, the Superintendent of Public Works, all Watertown police officers, Health Department, and any other Town employees from time to time designated by the Town Manager.”
The council voted to change it to just those designated by Town Manager. Some pointed to the new Code Enforcement Officer as someone who could enforce this. Town Manager Michael Driscoll said when he created the position, enforcing the plastic bag ban was not envisioned as one of his or her roles.
Finally, the board debated when the ban would take effect. The proposal called for six months after approval, but some wanted a year to give businesses more time to adjust. Councilor Dushku proposed eight months as a compromise. His proposal lost 5-4. The proposal to start it on July 1, 2017 passed 5-4, with Dushku, Susan Falkoff, Lisa Feltner and Tony Palomba voting “no.”
During the final vote, many Councilors gave tribute to those who worked for so many years to pass the plastic bag ban.
Palomba noted the ReThink Plastic Group grew out of a subcommittee of Watertown Citizens for Peace, Justice and the Environment. The subcommittee started three years ago after hearing about the issue at the group’s annual meeting.
Dushku said he was proud that Watertown was out ahead of the state and federal governments.
“I feel this is a high priority. When it isn’t coming from the state, do it at the local level,” Dushku said. “Sometimes in good government you should do that from time to time.”
Falkoff said when she made her vote she thought of Janet Banbury, who supported banning plastic bags for many years.
“Many years ago she said she would give me a canvas bag if I stopped using plastic bags. I thought she was crazy,” Falkoff said. “She died in December at the age of 95. I will be voting ‘yes’ in her honor.”