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The "Bring Your Own Bag" Bylaw

With support from Selectmen, Boards of Health, and Conservation Commissions, VCS put an article on the 2016 and 2017 Town Meeting warrants proposing to ban the use of disposable plastic checkout bags. 

Six-for-Six! With the near-unanimous vote in Oak Bluffs, the BYOB bylaw has now been passed overwhelmingly in all six Island towns! Check out the newspaper coverageOak Bluffs, and the 2016 votes in ChilmarkEdgartownTisbury, and West Tisbury


What does the Bring Your Own Bag bylaw do?
  • The bylaw is aimed specifically at eliminating single-use plastic checkout bags: the thin bags that are provided by a business to a customer at the point of sale.
  • Businesses would be allowed to provide paper bags containing at least 40% recycled content and reusable bags of any material.
  • Many other types of plastic bags would also still be allowed, such as those used to wrap produce, meat, and bulk goods, and customers could still purchase packaged bags, such as trash can liners and bags for dog waste.
  • Compostable and biodegradable plastic bags that otherwise fit the "single-use" description are not allowed.
  • To ease the transition, the ban does not take effect until the year after passage, and additional waivers for hardship may be available.

Why Ban Plastic Bags?

The Waste

  • Plastic shopping bags are used for 12 minutes on average, but live on in the environment for up to a thousand years.
  • Each year, the average American uses 500 plastic bags, and one of our popular locally-owned stores uses over half a million.
  • Every year, Americans use 1.6 billion gallons of oil – just to make disposable plastic shopping bags

Wildlife

  • Marine wildlife often mistake plastic bags for food, especially sea turtles hunting jellyfish.
  • Other animals, including whales, dolphins, seals, and puffins have been found with plastic bags blocking their stomachs or breathing passages.
  • Today, 90% of seabirds have ingested plastic. It is estimated that in 1960 it was less than 5% of birds, and that by 2050 it will be 99%.

Recycling

  • Nationally, only 1-5% of plastic bags are recycled. It rarely makes sense economically because the bags require their own dedicated recycling system.
  • Plastic bags are a menace to single-stream recycling systems like we have on the Vineyard. Our local waste management services don’t accept them.
  • Bags get stuck in the sorting machines and cause shutdowns, increasing the cost of trash and recycling operations – costs that are passed on to taxpayers.

Ocean Pollution

  • Plastics don’t biodegrade. Instead, they break up into small pieces, and most of those end up in the ocean. 
  • The five “great garbage patches” of the world’s oceans contain 40,000 to 250,000 tons of plastic, floating like a massive soup of plastic particles.
  • But, over the years we’ve put millions of tons into the oceans . . . Where did the rest go?

Our Food

  • Plastic particles in the ocean are eaten by microorganisms, plankton, and small fish and then they work their way up the food chain.
  • Many large fish have plastics in their gut, and plastics have been found incorporated into the skin of salmon, haddock, and carp.
  • Someone who consumes an average amount of seafood is currently ingesting 11,000 particles of plastic per year.
More questions?
See the bylaw text, and read the FAQ for detailed explanations.

It's Time to Bag the Plastic

We’ve all used them. If you are anything like me, you might have an unruly kitchen drawer, frustrating all attempts at properly closing, from which glimpses of plastic handles protrude. Or maybe it’s a mountain of balled plastic in the corner of a pantry shelf, threatening to avalanche across your dry goods. The carryout plastic bag was not even available until the 1970s, and only widespread by the 80s, but in that short time it has made an assertive move into the fabric of consumer culture. Today, the average American uses 500 single-use bags a year.

In my house, Bag Mountain and the Obstinate Drawer are accepted (if occasionally annoying) members of the family because the bags are undeniably handy. Without them, I’d be without a lifetime supply of free trashcan liners; worse, I’d have to find a new solution for getting wet bathing suits home. But their proliferation everywhere has become a problem, and the convenience of the free bags is not worth the excess and waste. For every bag that is carefully reused as a bicycle seat rain-shield, there are thousands that make their way into our natural environment.

The Vineyard Conservation Society is proposing to eliminate the single-use, disposable plastic bag on Martha’s Vineyard. We are targeting these bags because very few are re-used (though we know that many exceptions may be found among VCS members), and they are unsuitable for recycling. Our local waste haulers (Bruno’s and the MV Refuse District) do not accept them in their recycling streams. While some major supermarket chains do take them back, less than 3% are returned by consumers, and much of that collected material is not actually recycled. (To recycle one ton of bags costs about $4000; the resulting product can be sold for around $32.) The primary purpose of supermarket recycling programs is some combination of legitimate litter management and savvy public relations.

The invention of the disposable plastic bag was a feat of chemical engineering: they are amazingly light, able to carry many times their own weight, and so, so very cheap to manufacture. But this very lightness makes them a nightmare for waste management. They catch easily in the wind, blowing out of trash cans, trucks, and landfills, coming to rest in our oceans and trees. And with cheapness comes abundance: nationwide, 10% of coastal debris is plastic bags. Here on our relatively pristine Island, plastic bags commonly adorn osprey nests (and occasionally their necks – see photo). They are so common we mostly stop seeing them. But since I began researching this issue I have collected and photographed the bags from the Gay Head Cliffs to Edgartown Harbor – with many schoolyards, soccer fields, beaches, and roadsides in between. 

But as unpleasant as they may be when strewn about the beach and dunes, the bags truly wreak havoc once they enter the ocean. They kill fish, turtles, and marine mammals, and photo-degrade into tiny particles called microplastics that travel up the food chain. (I will assume that low-density polyethylene was not what you ordered with your pan-seared tuna.) As Islanders, we derive so much from the ocean: we eat from it and play on it; many of us, at least in part, count on it for our livelihood. I believe we have a duty to be at the forefront of protection for this powerful, but fragile body that supports and defines us.

There is also a financial cost to the abundance of these bags, and not just in the lost tourism value when bags float through someone’s beach day or sunset picnic. The cost for handling a ton of recycling has now surpassed that of a ton of trash, a potential crisis for community recycling programs. The number one contributor to the cost increase due to contamination of the recycling stream is plastic bags. The bags also cost us when we pay our town workers to pick them up.

There are hundreds of communities in the US that have already passed ordinances banning these bags. Just last year Falmouth became the eleventh town in Massachusetts to pass a bag ban, and many more, including Truro and Chatham, are working on it. We are hardly revolutionary on this one I’m afraid; Nantucket did it 25 years ago.

What those existing ordinances tell us is that the bans work. In every community, concerns are raised about inconvenience to shoppers and harm to local businesses, but once enacted the bans have not proven to do either. What does happen is that consumers change their habits, pollution is drastically reduced, and valuable natural resources and community financial resources are saved. In reality, it’s a pretty small adaptation – many of us are already accustomed to bringing reusable bags when we go shopping.

We believe that getting rid of plastic bags is part of an important and worthwhile effort to take care of our Island home. More broadly, it makes a statement that we care, and that we expect our visitors to do the same – a sentiment we hope goes beyond shopping bags and influences the small choices each of us makes to help protect this place we love.