By the start of 2022, municipal lawmakers in Northampton are hoping there will be less disposable plastic in the city.
During a first read, the Northampton City Council voted unanimously last week in favor of an ordinance that would ban restaurants and other businesses in the community from providing prepared food to customers in non-recyclable disposable service ware.
Ward 5 Councilor Alex Jarret had to recuse himself from the vote, as he works at Peddle People, a business cooperative that uses bicycles and bike trailers to transport goods and pick up recycling, trash and compost.
“There was terrific testimony from a number of residents,” Ward 1 City Councilor Michael Quinlan told MassLive. “The people who worked on this ordinance did a good job of crafting this document to calm concerns and realize they’re real. What will be in place is good stuff.”
First introduced in September 2020, the ordinance seeks to restrict the use and distribution of non-recyclable plastics – including polystyrene, polyethylene terephthalate, polyethylene and polyvinyl chloride – in food service ware and packaging materials.
Food and retail establishments would instead have to use certified biodegradable, compostable, reusable or recyclable materials in such products.
Under the ban, called the “Plastic Reduction and Sustainability Ordinance,” businesses would not be able to sell straws made of non-recyclable plastics, though they would be able to distribute compostable, biodegradable and reusable straws upon a customer’s request.
If passed in a second vote at the council’s next meeting on Jan. 21, the ordinance would also require businesses that are more 5,000 square feet in size to charge customers at least ten cents per paper bag.
The ban, which is expected to go into effect in January of next year, aims “to promote a cultural shift,” according to Councilor Bill Dwight. He and Ward 7 Councilor Rachel Maiore cosponsored the ordinance and worked with the Mayor’s Youth Commission on its language and specifics.
However, Dwight and others pointed out, the commission was the primary author of the ordinance and served an instrumental role in its creation.
“This is a product of the very hard work and earnest work and inspired work of the Youth Commission in conjunction with very good community members who have provided the expertise,” Dwight said at Thursday night’s council meeting before the ordinance’s initial passage.
Discussions surrounding efforts to reduce Northampton’s waste stream have been ongoing for several years now, according to Dwight, who noted the Youth Commission has been devoted to the issue for a “long time.” The group did most of the legwork in terms of drafting the ordinance, he mentioned.
In 2015, the council passed an ordinance banning the distribution of single-use plastic shopping bags in Northampton, allowing businesses to only use compostable plastic, reusable or biodegradable shopping bags.
To promote the importance of the ban, the city posted on its website a photograph of a hefty ball, comprised of more 18,000 single-use plastic shopping bags. The object was the subject of a short-lived police investigation after it was accidentally left overnight in front of the Puchalski Municipal Office Building on Main Street in April, 2015.
Clocking in at roughly 270 pounds and measuring roughly six miles in length when unwound, the ball was originally created for a 2010 school-related Earth Day project and was the star of a “waste consciousness-raising” parade, according to the city.
The newest ban aims to continue the progress made six years ago and further environmental protections and waste reduction in the community, according to officials.
“This has been a long time coming,” Noah Kassis, chair of the commission, said about the ordinance. “It’s been very much a team effort across several generations of the Youth Commission.”
In his comments at the council meeting Thursday, Kassis promised the Youth Commission will return with more climate-related initiatives.
“For young people, the climate crisis is a very important issue, and I think tackling it through a plastics ordinance is not the flashiest way of going about it,” he said. “When there’s a lot of talk about the Green New Deal, a lot of people are really excited, and the plastics maybe don’t bring out quite that same excitement, but I think the Youth Commission has been able to see the connections really well.”
Quinlan noted other communities in the commonwealth and beyond have already passed plastic restrictions similar to the one the council voted in favor of Thursday. More than 100 municipalities throughout the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia, for example, have banned polystyrene food service ware.
Among those communities are Amherst, Brookline, Great Barrington, Somerville, Cambridge and South Hadley as well as 41 other municipalities in Massachusetts. Chicago, Miami Beach, New York City and numerous other major U.S. cities are also on that list.
“This isn’t the most flashy piece of legislation,” Quinlan said, citing Kassis’s comments. “But it is important. I wouldn’t say we’re behind on this, but there are other communities – locally, our neighbor Easthampton – that have already passed legislation like this.”
Ward 3 Councilor Jim Nash, chair of the Committee on Community Resource, and Maiore worked with Kassis and multiple other prominent members of the community – including Amy Cahillane, executive director of the Downtown Northampton Association – to reach out to businesses prior to the first vote on the ban.
“I personally worked with the sponsors to flyer many business downtown,” Nash said, noting he had conversations with more than a dozen restaurants downtown, among them Belly of the Beast, Woodstar Cafe, India Palace Restaurant, Fitzwilly’s Restaurant & Bar, Local Burger and others.
The councilor dropped flyers off flyers at close to two dozen more businesses but did not have lengthy conversations with their owners. Other places spoke with him to say they were worried about ordinance’s impact on the local economy and downtown businesses.
One concern that was raised surrounded the restrictions on plastic straws. That issue was brought up by the city’s Disability Commission, and exceptions were made in the ordinance allowing businesses to offer bendy, plastic straws upon request.
When exactly the ordinance should go into effect was another concern. The ban was supposed to start Aug. 1. of this year. However, due to the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic and several residents saying that timeline was too early, the start date was pushed back to Jan. 1, 2022.
Nash noted the council will be able to delay the implementation of the ordinance if the public health crisis is ongoing by the start of next year.
“If we’re still in a pandemic, I will bring to the floor next year a delay notice, a suspension for a period of time,” he said. “Other councilors will back up that idea, that we don’t want to do undue harm to businesses.”
Once the ordinance passes, businesses will also be allowed a year-long exemption from the ban if the mayor’s office finds the law would pose an undue hardship to the establishment. Two additional six-month-long exemptions are also possible after the year-long one expires.
“Any time the council enacts a policy like the single-use bag ordinance or any other sort of policy that it’s up to the executive to implement it,” Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz said during the council meeting. “If we encounter an issue that seems like it requires some modifications or allowances, certainly we would come back to the council and say, ‘We would need to adjust this.’ ”
“But that’s certainly very commonplace with ordinances: You do the best you can do to capture everything you think needs to be captured when you draft it, but then when it’s actually put into place, there’s changes that need to be made,” he added.