Salem ‘Bring Your Own Bag’ ordinance rings in the New Year

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Shelley A. Sackett

On Jan. 1, Salem residents will have more to remember than just writing the correct year on the checks they write that week. They will also have to remember to bring their own bags with them to the grocery store, or be prepared to buy one.

That is because single-use plastic checkout bags — those provided at the point of sale by retail and food establishments — will no longer be legal in any Salem business after Jan. 1, when a “Bring Your Own Bag” ordinance goes into effect. The new initiative promotes the use of reusable bags in all forms, such as paper, heavy plastic, canvas, and net mesh.

Plastic bags of four millimeters thickness or less create problems for the city and for the environment, clogging storm drains, getting caught in trees, and finding their way into waterways, according to a Dec. 20 press release form Mayor Kimberley Driscoll’s office.

A group of Salem High School students working with Salem Sound Coastwatch spearheaded the initiative, and the Salem City Council passed the plastic bag ordinance in the Fall 2016 with a Jan. 1, 2018 start date. Salem will join 60 other towns and cities in Massachusetts in restricting use of these bags. Boston recently announced approval of a similar ordinance to go into effect in 2019, the press release reads.

The city has collaborated with many local organizations to educate the public and reach out to the business community. Salem Main Street, the Salem Farmers Market and the Salem Chamber of Commerce distributed free recycle bags to shoppers. SalemRecycles started educational outreach in early 2017 to provide resources to Salem businesses and to help residents make the transition. They too distributed free reusable bags at their events around the community.

Impact on stores

Grocery stores expect to bear the biggest impact of the new rules. “People have gotten used to taking a plastic bag even if they really don’t need it,” Salem Sound Coastwatch outreach coordinator Susan Yochelson stated in the press release.

Dawn Stanley has been a clerk at Steve’s Quality Market on Margin Street for only two weeks, but she has heard plenty of comments about the new bag rules. “The elderly are mad because they’re going to have to remember to bring bags or buy them,” she said.

Patty Harkness, who has worked at Steve’s for 10 years, is more optimistic. “It’s good for the environment, and if they’re really smart, they can use the recyclables inside the big cloth bags so they don’t have to use a lot of water to wash out the big bags. So it’s a win-win situation,” said Harkness, who describes her position as “multi-tasker, everywhere and when needed.”

Less than one mile away, at Crosby’s Marketplace on Canal Street, Judy LeDuc agrees that the plastic bag ban will be an adjustment. “A lot of people walk here and are used to carrying their groceries home, two bags in each hand,” she said. The 30-year veteran Crosby’s cashier noted that some people use the bags to pick up after their dogs.

One Crosby’s customer is all in favor of the ordinance. “I think it’s a good thing and I think it will save time for the stores and help reduce the trash in the area from all the plastic bags,” said Salem resident Steve Hodge.

Rinus Oosthoek, executive director of the Salem Chamber of Commerce, believes the ordinance will help Salem businesses stay at the forefront of a larger consumer awareness initiative.

“It will also give the smaller downtown business a way to generate goodwill with consumers, using the conversation as an opportunity to show Salem as unique and customer friendly,” he said.

Oosthoek recently conducted an outreach initiative to the big box stores on Highland Avenue.

“Almost all of them will start using paper bags, and they already have recyclable/reusable bags for sale near the registers,” he said.

While most agree the new ordinance will take some getting used to for both employees and customers, he added: “It seems as if everyone agrees the time is right for this initiative.”

Penalties and enforcement

The ordinance specifically addresses what happens if a business violates the new rules. Sec. 14-503 Penalties and enforcement provides for a series of warnings, notices and fines for violations.

It states, “The warning notice issued for the first offense shall provide at least 14 days to correct the violation. No fine for the second offense shall be issued until at least 14 days after the warning is issued. This article may be enforced by any police officer, enforcement officer or agent of the board of health or licensing department.”

Police Capt. Conrad Prosniewski said the ordinance would be treated like any other ordinance the Salem Police Department has the responsibility for enforcing.

Driscoll said she feels Salem is in a great position as the new restriction goes into effect, after a year’s worth of public education and outreach to the business community.

“We’ve all seen stray plastic bags caught in tree branches or blowing down the street,” she said. “I’m hopeful this new change will bring about a noticeable improvement in Salem, while also taking another step forward in keeping Salem a sustainable and attractive community in which to live and do business.”

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