As more communities decide to ban consumer products like plastic bags, Styrofoam, plastic water bottles or certain sized sodas, retailers want the Legislature to step in to stop a practice they say is a burden to businesses.
Jon Hurst, a spokesman for the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, called it a "disturbing" trend of local communities banning consumer goods, without any input at the state level, citing Concord's ban on bottled water, proposals in Cambridge around soda sizes and a voter-approved ban on polystyrene in Brookline.
Hurst argues the bans are driven by outside activists groups trying to circumvent the Legislature and push their agendas at the local level, which they perceive as the "path of least resistance."
First town in nation to ban plastic bottles
Concord became one of the first communities in the nation to ban single-serving plastic water bottles after a three-year campaign by activists. The ban went into effect in January.
Last November Brookline town meeting voters overwhelmingly approved a prohibition on disposable polystyrene, also known by its trademarked name Styrofoam, for food and beverages packaged in food service establishments.
"There are groups that actively train folks to create support" within communities for their agendas, Hurst told the News Service Tuesday after testifying before the Joint Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government.
Bans put local retailers at competitive disadvantage
The bans hurt local retailers and put them at a competitive disadvantage because they drive consumers to stores in neighboring communities, Hurst said. He questioned whether the bans are legal under interstate commerce laws.
"We are a state that has so many communities. It really becomes a problem if a product is banned in one community, but not next door," Hurst told the News Service.
The Retailers Association is pushing a bill (H 1832), filed by Rep. Paul Donato (D-Medford), that would require communities that pass a ban to take the proposal to the Legislature in the form of a home rule petition. Under the legislation, communities could still pass bans, but the Legislature would have the final say, according to Hurst.
"As retailers, that would give us two bites at the apple," Hurst said.
The legislation states "a city or town may not make any rule, regulation, ordinance or by-law interfering with interstate or intrastate trade or commerce or regulating any product or consumer good, and provided further, that no language in this section shall restrict the authority of any city or town from filing a home rule petition."
Similar legislation failed last year
Similar legislation failed to make it out of committee last legislative session.
Often, when consumer goods bans are passed, it happens very quickly, and is already done by the time national and state retailers find out, according to Hurst.
The Retailers Association has not heard from any communities that oppose the legislation, Hurst said, and no local officials testified against it Tuesday. "I think a lot of them would welcome it frankly," he said.
Two Cape legislators have their say
Rep. Cleon Turner (D-Dennis) said he thought the legislation was broad enough to include things that cities and towns have already banned, such as lottery tickets and alcohol. Hurst said that was not the intent, adding if the bill needed to be tweaked the association would be amenable to that.
"The intent is really to move forward," Hurst said. "We are trying to get at the types of products that are primarily regulated at the federal level, and secondarily at the state level."
Committee co-chair Rep. Sarah Peake (D-Provincetown) suggested communities may feel forced to ban goods on their own.
"I'm sure if you talk to people in Concord they would say 'We wouldn't have banned bottle water if the Legislature would just get busy and pass the updated bottle bill,'" she said.