By James Niedzinski
---- — MANCHESTER — To some, the ubiquitous plastic bag is a convenience; to others, it is the bane of the environment.
Now, a coalition of residents and officials from the town and the Manchester Essex Regional School District have teamed up in an effort they say will make the town of Manchester more environmentally friendly; they’re seeking to ban the distribution of single-use plastic bags through a warrant article for April’s Town Meeting.
Manchester resident Gary Gilbert petitioned to get the article on the warrant, which would bar the distribution of thin-filmed, single use, plastic bags commonly used at convenience and grocery stores; it would not target trash bags or plastic produce bags.
If approved, the legislation would appoint police officers to enforce the ban, with a fine of $50 on the first offense, $100 on the second and $300 on a third of subsequent offense.
In place of plastic, Gilbert has suggested retailers utilize reusable bags, or anything biodegradable, such as paper.
However, the proposed article states a retailer may petition the Board of Selectmen to get a new form of a single use bag approved, providing the material meets specific standards set by the American Society for Testing and Material Standards.
Gilbert is set to further discuss the article with the Board of Selectmen on Feb. 25. The board would then have to place the article on the warrant to send it to voters at the Annual Town Meeting on April 1.
The Green Team, a student environmental group at the Manchester Essex Regional High School, has also gotten behind the legislation.
Anna Heffernan and Max Nesbit, two students in the program, gathered reports and responses of how plastic bags affect coastal environments.
Out of 100 people surveyed, mostly Manchester residents, the two found that about 90 percent would be in support of a town-wide ban. According to their findings, about five people were indifferent about the issue and another five said they utilize bags to clean up messes left behind by their pets.
The two students also found the bags are often ingested by marine life, causing severe problems.
Tony LaCasse, a spokesman for the New England Aquarium, said floating bags are mistaken for jellyfish by sea turtles and other marine life, causing health problems.
”It’s not an uncommon thing,” he said.
LaCasse said the long-term affects of plastic bags have on the environment are unknown.
“Plastic bags are very useful to us; they are durable and lightweight, but they can also be a bane on the environment,” he said.
Additionally, bags not properly secured can be dug up by birds or blown around by the wind. Jessica Lamothe, who chairs Manchester’s Coastal Stream Team, said the issue nearly hit her in the face while on a jog near Masconomo Park.
Lamothe said she recognizes that the ban would likely have an economic impact on businesses in town, but she hopes the ban would be seen as a reasonable request.
Gilbert said retailers could sell more multi-use bags and could charge customers a nominal fee of five cents for paper bags in order to offset their cost.
He said similar legislation was recently passed in Brookline, while Nantucket banned plastic bags in the 1990s.
State Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, meanwhile, filed similar legislation earlier this year that would ban plastic bags throughout the state. Ehrlich’s bill, however, would cover a retail establishment with space of 4,000 square feet or more with three locations under the same ownership, a retail pharmacy with at least five locations under the same ownership, or a supermarket with gross sales over $1 million.
Like Gilbert’s proposal, Ehrlich’s legislation proposed reusable or recyclable bags; ones that would have a minimum number uses and certain specifications.
Ehrlich said similar bills have failed in the past, but this one is different. She explained plastic bag legislation is usually a ban or a tax, but her legislation would allow for plant-based, biodegradable bags that meet ASTM standards.
Some residents Tuesday were indifferent about the proposed legislation. Many residents did say they reused or recycled plastic bags, others added the reusable, multi-use bags are forgotten at home all too often.
“I wouldn’t have a problem with it,” Dave Taliaferro said as he left Allen’s Pharmacy. Taliaferro said he usually opts for paper bags when he has the option.
Anna Kasabian said she is against plastic bags and said the store she just left did not give her an option of paper or plastic. Tim Migneault, meanwhile, said he was unsure of the potential bylaw, but did note the plastic bags were convenient.
Gilbert said the proposed ban is simply aimed at long-term environmental benefits.
“Why should something we use so very briefly, remain in our environment for 1,000 years?” Gilbert said.
James Niedzinski can be reached at 978-283-7000, x 3455 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.