Voters in Oak Bluffs have two versions of a plastic bag bylaw to consider at our town meeting on April 11. Our Bring Your Own Bag Bylaw, the same bylaw that passed in all five other Island towns last year, has been put forward by an Oak Bluffs citizen petition and appears on the warrant as article 44. The other bylaw has been initiated by a few Oak Bluffs businesses and appears as article 45.

The two bylaws are similar in that they both recognize the many problems with plastic bags — roadside litter, danger to wildlife, ocean pollution (with plastic particles and toxins) and contamination of recycling streams — and they both have the stated goal of reducing the use of plastic bags. However, in four crucial areas, the two bylaws differ in approach and ultimate effectiveness.

Thickness: Typical grocery store checkout bags are approximately 0.5 to 1.5 mils (a standard measure of thickness for plastic bags.). Our bylaw sets a minimum plastic bag thickness of 4 mils. The minimum thickness in the other bylaw is 2.5 mils. Under both bylaws, a plastic bag under the minimum could no longer be provided by a store at checkout.

Why does thickness matter? The other bylaw, which a handful of businesses are urging the town to adopt, sets the limit at 2.5 mils because these bags are still cheap enough to be used in volume.  What this means is that if their bylaw passes, stores will stock the slightly thicker plastic bags, and those bags will become the new Oak Bluffs normal. A 2.5 mil minimum will not affect store or consumer behavior. There will be no reduction in the use of plastic bags and the amount of plastic waste will actually increase, since thicker bags contain more plastic. Towns that initially banned plastic bags with a 2.5 mil limit (including Brookline and Barrington, R.I.) have increased the limit to 4 mils after seeing no reduction in plastic bag use.

Plastic bags that meet our bylaw minimum of 4 mils are more expensive, making plastic no longer the most economical option. Stores will provide paper bags and have an incentive to encourage the use of reusable bags, a primary goal of the bylaw.

Biodegradable and compostable bags: Under the other bylaw no minimum thickness applies to bags that are biodegradable or compostable. These eco-bags sound environmentally friendly, but they are not.

Biodegradable and compostable bags will not degrade in a landfill or a home composter. They will degrade only in an industrial composting facility, or possibly if left as litter along the street after an unspecified amount of time. The bags cannot be recycled with other plastics. Moreover, manufacturers of these bags do not have to disclose what their bags are made from or whether the materials are toxic.

Processing facilities for biodegradable and compostable bags do not exist on the Island, so the bags would need to be collected, separated, baled and shipped off-Island for processing. Who is going to cover the cost of these measures? How many bags will actually make it to the collection depot? Very few, say all the studies — somewhere between 3 and 7 per cent.

These bags will continue to litter our streets, the ocean and our ponds, harm marine and terrestrial wildlife, pollute our waterways with toxins and contaminate our single stream recycling system, increasing costs for all of us. And consumer confusion will reign — how will consumers, or the board of health which is charged with enforcing the bylaw, know if a bag is made of regular plastic or is biodegradable or compostable?

Under our bylaw, no plastic checkout bag under 4 mils would be allowed, whether or not it is claimed to be biodegradable compostable. This will ensure fewer plastic bags. It will eliminate customer and enforcement confusion. It will eliminate all the operational logistics and costs of bag collection for processing. And it will enable Oak Bluffs to work toward minimizing all of the environmental issues with plastic bags, along with the rest of Martha’s Vineyard.

Exemptions: The other bylaw provides for an exemption for any business that can show hardship. Does the cost of compliant bags constitute hardship? If so, presumably every store would qualify for an exemption. Worse, the exemption can be claimed year after year after year. Which renders the whole bylaw meaningless. Our bylaw provides a one-year exemption for stores whose plastic bag inventory can’t be used before the bylaw becomes effective. In addition, in recognition of the possibility that compliance may take longer for some businesses, we plan to offer up to a three-year hardship exemption.

Islandwide consistency: Our bylaw is the same one passed by the other Island towns. We think a common approach to this environmental issue is appropriate for the Vineyard community. The other bylaw, which sets up a one-town rule, will undermine the goal of an Island community and lead to confusion.

In short, Article 44 achieves the goals that have motivated communities everywhere to enact plastic bag ban bylaws. The other bylaw satisfies none of these goals that we, along with residents across the Island, feel are important to tackle.

Nina Carter Hitchen
Emma Green-Beach
Oak Bluffs