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Last updated: 12/10/18

Reducing plastic bags in the City of Boston

On December 14, 2018, the City's plastic bag ordinance goes into effect. Learn more about what that means for you below.

We know that single-use plastic bags have an impact on the environment. They often end up in City streets and gutters, abandoned lots, and even in trees.

Have questions? Contact:

Plastic bag ordinance basics

Our goal is to reduce litter and pollution. We want to protect the ocean our waterways. We aim to also reduce greenhouse gasses and reduce solid waste in the waste stream.

What the ordinance applies to

The plastic bag ordinance only applies to “checkout bags” — carryout bags with handles. The ordinance does not include:

  • newspaper bags
  • bags used to wrap produce, frozen food, meat, or fish
  • laundry and dry-cleaner bags, and
  • trash can liners.
Types of bags retailers can sell

Retailers can only keep in stock recyclable paper bags, compostable bags, and reusable bags. Many retailers sell compliant bags. We also created a list of certified retailers.

Recyclable paper bag:

  • 100 percent recyclable
  • Contains at least 40 percent post-consumer recycled material
  • Displays the above in a visible manner on outside of bag

Compostable bag:

  • Conforms to ASTM D6400 standards and is certified
  • Capable of decomposing at the same rate as compostable materials

Reusable bag:

  • Designed and manufactured to use more than once
  • Made of durable material or durable plastic at least 3.0 mils (thousandths of an inch) in thickness

Recyclable paper bags, compostable bags, or reusable bags have to be sold for AT LEAST 5 CENTS. Retailers can charge more. The cost of bags must be posted and advertised within five feet of the checkout location.

Start dates for enforcement:
  • For retail establishments 20,000 square feet and larger, we will begin inspections on December 14, 2018.
  • For retail establishments 10,000 square feet and larger, we will begin inspections on April 1, 2019.
  • For retail establishments smaller than 10,000 square feet, we will begin inspections on July 1, 2019.
  • Initial violation: Warning
  • Second violation: $50 fine
  • Third or more violation: $100 fine

Businesses must fill out an exemption application form by December 14, 2018. A business would need to show that:

  1. it has no reasonable alternatives to plastic bags
  2. compliance would deprive of a legally protected right, or
  3. there is a need to use up an existing plastic bag inventory. Businesses need to fill out an exemption application monthly.

Resources for business owners

Business resources

The bag ordinance policy requires a sign posted within five feet of the checkout location, telling customers that they'll have to pay for a bag if they want one. Scroll down to download the signs we made in your language. 


How to apply for an exemption

Your business can file for a temporary exemption if you qualify for an undue hardship. Follow the link below to see if you qualify, and how to apply:

Exemption information

Your business only qualifies for an exemption if: 
  • You feel like there are no reasonable alternatives to plastic bags that your business could use and provide to customers.
  • Compliance with the ordinance would deprive you of a legally protected right.
  • You cannot use up all of your existing inventory of plastic bags before December 14. You need more time to get rid of your plastic bags before switching to compliant paper and compostable bags.

Common questions

Common questions

Yes, all bags at restaurants given to customers are subject to the guidelines in the ordinance. They have to be either recycled paper, compostable, or reusable. 

No, they are not. However, we encourage retailers to still search for environmentally friendly bags without handles.

Retailers are NOT required to provide any bags. They can rely on their customers to bring their own bag. 

No, you can file for an exemption due to existing inventory. You will need to mail monthly update reports to prove your inventory is decreasing. Please don’t throw out your existing plastic bags!

We are working on getting the basics of the ordinance and our fliers translated into:

  • Cape Verdean Creole
  • Haitian Creole
  • Spanish
  • Traditional Chinese, and
  • Vietnamese.


Many retailers sell compliant bags. We created a list of certified retailers.