For the most part, Boston lawmakers have done a good job tackling issues in ways that balance concerns from stakeholders on all sides. So when legislation was introduced to put a $.05 tax on reusable plastic bags I was surprised because it didn’t seem to consider my customers.
This proposal may have been well-intentioned on the surface, but consider the facts and it’s easy to see why it didn’t make sense for Boston: it wasn’t meaningful for the environment, it would hurt small retail businesses like mine, and would create a regressive tax on consumers (including many of my custom-ers). Unfortunately, despite the bill going down with a thud, the bill was re-filed in January, so it looks like the council must deal with it again.
The proposed ordinance would ban standard plastic grocery bags, allowing only thicker plastic bags (de-fined as “reusable”), paper bags and compostable bags to be offered at Boston stores. To help “train” resi-dents to buy and bring reusable bags of their own, the legislation requires stores like mine to charge customers a tax of at least $.05 for each of the city-approved reusable bags they might need to carry their groceries.
For some, that “behavior-change” tax might seem like a minor nuisance, and a good reminder. “Just keep your reusable bags in the trunk of your car,” people say. But for the families who shop at my store, every nickel matters and a car isn’t a given.
Convenience store owners play an important role serving low- and middle-income families. In food de-serts, our stores are the neighborhood grocery stores. I have seen firsthand the choices moms have to make at the register when the money they have won’t cover all the groceries on their list.
Many of my customers are single parents who work long hours. They take public transit to and from work. And when they stop at my store on their way home to pick up milk or eggs or something for din-ner, they’re not going to have a stash of reusable bags in their purse or work bag. My customers are going to be hit by the bag tax more than others, and that tax will leave more of them making a choice between buying food or buying a way to bring it home. A ban and tax on bags here would have a real impact on a lot of people who simply can’t afford it.
And what would be the environmental gain? If you ban traditional plastic bags, sure, they may go away. But that’s not going to meaningfully reduce litter or waste in the city. And the thicker bags consumers will have to pay for aren’t really any better for the environment.
Also, for store owners like me, unequal enforcement of this type of ordinance would be inevitable given the concentration of convenience stores in Boston and the limited city staff that would be responsible for keeping tabs on compliance. This could give some stores an advantage over others and open oppor-tunities for abuse – something we shouldn’t invite in our city.
The bag ban and tax proposal already died once in Boston. If it somehow gets air time in 2017, the city council should deal with it swiftly and similarly to how the issue was handled in December. It’s bad for small businesses, bad for consumers and won’t achieve any significant environmental goals. Is that worth the cost to Boston families?
None of us should support a plan that places an unfair burden on Boston’s working families. The best course of action is for the city to assure its most vulnerable citizens that they will not be forced to shoul-der a greater burden than they already are. When that’s done, we can all be part of a plan to reduce waste and protect our environment.
Francisco Marte owns the Los Caballeros Market at 796 Washington St., Dorchester. He serves as president of the Boston Convenience Store Owners Association.