Editorial: Educate, rather than dictate on plastics

Educate or dictate? We’ll take the former.

We thought educating people about the ills associated with plastic bags or plastic bottles was preferable when a Greenfield resident proposed banning them last year and we continue to think that with the revised proposal that looks to include more prohibited items.

This time around, the group of Greenfield residents working on the bylaw — called the Greenfield Biodegradable Packaging and Litter Reduction Ordinance — targets product packaging, whether something like bubble wrap or outer-shell plastic. The ordinance also calls for prepared foods to come in only biodegradeable — or compostable — materials and that includes single-use utensils.

The ordinance also includes cleaning up cigarette butts and/or filters, specifying that “any person smoking tobacco products ... permitted by State law in a public place must carry a personal ashtray or be within arm length reach of an ashtray provided for disposal of tobacco ash, used filters and unfiltered tobacco remains.”

In a nutshell, this is an attempt to get rid of as much plastic in Greenfield as possible, with an over-arching aim of making Greenfield a zero-waste community.

As with the earlier attempt to get Greenfield to pass a ban on single-use plastic water bottles and plastic bags, the ordinance intends to put a 10-cent charge on the consumer who doesn’t bring their own reuseable bag, which the group says is designed to change behavior. Businesses, meanwhile, will be expected to keep track of the plastic-bag charge and pay the town the money quarterly. Perhaps this is why the ordinance says, “there is nothing intended or implied in this ordinance that prohibits vendors from charging the customer more than 10 cents per bag.”

The economic ramifications don’t end there, however.

Stores and businesses will be asked to remove banned packaging from items. Along with time and effort spent by businesses removing packaging, we can see continuing concerns that products contain all the items they’re supposed to, etc.

The bottom line here is to get people to think — and we think that starts with education, perhaps helped along by mild economic incentives, rather than fines. When it comes to plastic bags, stores can do more, we think, to voluntarily encourage shoppers to bring their own bags or make the switch to paper. Some local markets, for example, were offering a nickel discount to shoppers who brought their own reusable bags.

They’ve stopped doing that, but we think it should be reinstituted and expanded.

As to single-use plastic bottles, we urged that more pressure be put on the Legislature to expand its bottle bill to include five-cent deposits on water bottles, teas and sport drinks, just like we now do with carbonated beverages. Putting a nickel deposit on soda or beer containers has gone a long way in making a dent in this kind of littering, and we see no reason to believe that won’t be true for other drinks.

The town could be a driving force in finding other uses for some of the plastic waste. Items like bubble wrap can be re-purposed or properly recycled.

Again, the idea of reducing litter and the amount of plastic is a noble — and achievable — goal.

But there are better ways of getting people to change their thinking than punishing them. In this case, a new ordinance is not the way to go.

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