New Amherst bylaw to do away with plastic bags starting January

BY HOA NGUYEN '18 

Single-use plastic bags will be forbidden for all Amherst retailers starting Jan. 1, according to a new bylaw written by a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts. 

The bylaw, written by UMass sustainability graduate student Kevin Hollerbach, prohibits thin-film or take-out plastic bags with plastic handles from being used, distributed or sold by local merchants. Exceptions will be made for bags without plastic handles that contain dry cleaning, newspapers, produce or wet items.

The ordinance was supported by a vote of 110 to 30 at a town meeting in May. It was originally designed as part of Hollerbach’s master’s practicum, and is the experiential learning component in his graduate program.

In drafting the bylaw, Hollerbach consulted materials from the Mass Green Network, attended their conference, then incorporated elements from existing laws in other towns such as those of Northampton and Brookline.

Plastic bag bans or policies have become common in the United States in recent years. 

Some plastic bag laws, like those in Washington, D.C. and California, entail a small charge of five or ten cents per bag. Hollerbach, however, said he was hesitant to include a charge for bags because there should be more monetary enforcement on the business side and not on the customers. 

“What I really want to target is the educational method and awareness that people should bring their own reusable bag when they go shopping,” Hollerbach said in a recent phone interview.

Some area businesses had already begun to make changes before the plastic ban was approved.

Hollerbach cited Atkins Farms as one of the major businesses that endorsed the bylaw before its passage. 

Residents will see the most change in big corporations like CVS and Big Y, where plastic bags are still largely in circulation.

Yet Hollerbach believes the shift will be a large shift even at those businesses. 

“Big Y now has reusable bags at their check-out counter, which they put out right after the bylaw was passed,” he said. 

Skeptics argue that paper bags are just as harmful to the environment as plastic bags, given that the production uses up more water and consumes more energy, but in the end they are easier to recycle, Hollerbach said. 

The recycle rate for plastic bags is 15 percent compared to 50 percent for paper bags, as stated in Hollerbach’s poster promoting the bylaw. In addition, paper bags will biodegrade and integrate into the soil more quickly, as opposed to plastic, which can take centuries to decay.

Hollerbach is hoping to bring about a water bottle ban in the upcoming year. After spending his undergraduate and graduate years at UMass, he called his institution “hypocritical” for allowing the campus’s image to be branded on single-use plastic water bottles that are distributed school-wide while simultaneously advocating for a green campus. Because conventional plastic bottles are so widely used, according to Hollerbach, passing a water bottle ban would require much more public outreach and human resources. 

Currently, Concord, Mass. is the only town in the state and in the country to have banned both plastic bags and single-serve water bottles.

“If [Amherst] moves forward with a water bottle ban, it’s going to draw a lot of attention,” Hollerbach said. 

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