Cambridge Bans Plastic Bags, Imposes Fee on Paper Bags

The Cambridge City Council voted 8-1 Monday to pass a “Bring Your Own Bag” ordinance, which bans single-use plastic bags and imposes a fee upon paper bags. Retail establishments that violate the ban will be liable for a fine of up to $300 per day.

Businesses have 180 days before the ordinance goes into effect.

The ban, a version of which was also proposed in 2007, aims to encourage the use of renewable bags. The law makes Cambridge the largest city on the East Coast to impose a ban on single-use plastic bags, Cambridge City Councillor Dennis Carlone said, and follows similar legislation in Brookline and Newton.

Cambridge is also the first municipality in the Commonwealth to charge for paper bags. According to Carlone, the fee will be kept by retailers, and may help to offset the costs associated with switching away from plastic bags.

“As someone said to me, we've got along without plastic [bags] most of creation,” Carlone said. “And we’ll do it again.”


For Councillor Nadeem A. Mazen, the ban is an important step in reducing what he argued was a negative environmental impact caused by plastic or paper bags. Carlone echoed Mazen’s concerns, saying that plastic bags toxify soil and are overly wasteful because they are used only once.

“These are bags that end up in rivers in streams and ecosystems,” Mazen said. “They don't biodegrade for a heck of a long time.”

However, Brian Houghton, the vice president of Massachusetts Food Association, wrote to the City Council that the association opposed the ban because it would harm business and disrupt existing recycling efforts.

“The bags themselves are not the problem, but rather what consumers do with them after they are finished using them,” Houghton wrote. He said a solution is needed to address litter rather than bans, which “unfairly disrupt business.”  

Mazen emphasized the environmental aspect of the ban, and called on its supporters to step up efforts towards divestment from fossil fuels. The City Council filed a resolution in support of Divest Harvard last June.

“This passage of the ordinance is the first in an important series of steps. Right on the heels of [the ban] is our investment in fossil fuels,” Mazen said. “I want to see people who believe that the plastic bag ban is an important ordinance start to gear up for divestment by our city and universities.”  

As stated in the ordinance, exceptions may be obtained for “undue hardships.” Per request, the city manager will also purchase 10,000 reusable bags for seniors and low-income residents.

—Staff writer Samuel E. Liu can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @samuelliu96.


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