AG rejects part of Westborough plastic bag bylaw amendment

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AG rejects part of Westborough plastic bag bylaw amendment
Cars pass through downtown Westborough, which saw a proposed Plastic Bad Reduction bylaw amendment rejected by the state Attorney General this week. (Photo/Dakota Antelman)

WESTBOROUGH – A proposed mandatory $0.10 fee for bags at Westborough stores will not go into effect thanks to a recent move by the state Attorney General.

The fee was part of a series of changes to Westborough’s existing Plastic Bag Reduction bylaw. It passed at Town Meeting in March, but was recently disallowed on review by the office of AG Maura Healey, according to a determination letter from the AG’s office, which reviews bylaws.

Though the AG’s office struck down the fee, it approved other changes, including one that required all bags given out at stores to be either reusable – made from 100% post-consumer or biodegradable material – or be made of recyclable paper. This change will go into effect on July 18.

Westborough’s original bag bylaw prohibited the use of thin-film, single-use plastic bags at grocery and retail stores. It promoted reusable bags, saying that, if a store provided checkout bags, they had to be reusable or recyclable paper bags.

The original bylaw said stores “may” charge for the bags, but it didn’t require such a charge, like the changed bylaw would have. 

What was proposed

This was then one of two petitioned articles related to plastic that went before Town Meeting this spring. 

Petitioned by Zero Waste Westborough, member Nathan Askew presented changes during Town Meeting.

“This is not a new concept,” Askew said at the time. “This is something that a lot of places do.”

“It basically brings conscious of mind to the user so that it’s not so easy and convenient to go to the retail store or wherever you would like to shop and not bring a bag,” he continued.

The second article that was petitioned by Zero Waste Westborough addressed plastic reduction in general. It would require restaurants to use biodegradable materials for their dine-out containers when such an alternative exists. 

That article was ultimately referred to the Board of Health, which will be holding an informational session on July 19 at 5 p.m. in the Westborough Fire Station meeting room.

Selectmen share thoughts

When this pair of articles was presented to the Select Board before Town Meeting, some members voiced concerns while others expressed support. Now-Chair Ian Johnson worried that the details hadn’t been communicated to stores and restaurants, while Sean Keogh said he was generally supportive. 

“These are things that we have to do,” Keogh said. 

He added that he would be interested in following up and working with the community to bring this matter back to Westborough’s fall Town Meeting if it didn’t pass at Town Meeting in March. 

Shelby Marshall noted that some of Westborough’s restaurants may need assistance and education on where to source the new products.

“I’m supportive of this change,” Marshall said. “[But] I don’t know that I’m there yet on the charging for bags.”

Marshall recalled a recent trip to Maine where she went to a store that charged for bags. She said she was sensitive, in particular, to older residents, noting that grocery prices are increasing. 

A fee for bags would be an additional cost, she said.

Businesses speak out

In the weeks and months following Town Meeting, town staff had cautioned that the changes to the bag bylaw still needed to be approved by the Attorney General.

Those messages came on multiple occasions, including at an informational session on the bylaw in May.

“We’re holding this meeting so everyone is prepared for it passing,” Town Manager Kristi Williams said during the meeting. “But we definitely want to be clear that it’s also a possibility that the Attorney General does not approve some or all of the amendments.”

During that same meeting, residents and business owners spoke out against the bylaw, including Julio’s Liquors owner Ryan Maloney.

He said businesses have been at the “forefront” of dealing with verbal abuse stemming from mask mandates and COVID-19. 

“We’re finally getting a little on the other side of this, and now my crew will have to explain to everybody that we have to charge you a $0.10 bag fee where we used to charge you nothing,” Maloney said.

He added that money generated from the fee is going back to the store, making it look like the store is choosing to charge instead of being “forced” to do so. 

Maloney also pointed out that the store would have to charge $0.10 for a bag for a bottle of liquor just as they would for a larger grocery bag.

“We’re being forced to charge that money to the consumer at a point in time [when] we’re closing in on $5 a gallon of gas,” Maloney said.

During a June Select Board meeting, Williams said that businesses had also voiced concerns about getting rid of their existing stock of bags and updating their point of sale systems to be able to charge for bags.

Businesses were given an option to request six-month exemptions from the bylaw to allow them extra time to prepare for changes.

The Select Board did grant two such exemptions to Julio’s Liquors and Boston Ski + Tennis. 

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