Newton City Council bans plastic takeout ware, helium balloon releases

The City Council on Monday night passed an ordinance banning non-recyclable single-use dishware from being sold at restaurants in the city. And a provision of that includes a ban on releasing helium balloons.

The ordinance requires that all establishments in Newton that give out disposable dishware use the recyclable or compostable kind, and that those single-use items only be made available upon customer request.

“It would include the public schools in those mandates that serve food and drinks, so dishware and containers would be reusable, recyclable or compostable,” City Councilor Joshua Krintzman, who chairs the Programs & Services Committee.

The ordinance also has a ban on the black-bottom plastic containers restaurants typically use for takeout orders. It’s not because of the color, though.

“It is the fact that black plastic, unbeknownst to many people, is made out of largely old electronic components,” Councilor Victoria Danberg said. “And electronic components have lots of heavy metals—cadmium, lead—and these items leach out into food. And the public doesn’t really know this is the case. So it’s a public health issue.”

The ordinance is set to take effect in March 2024.

The balloon debate

What got the most discussion and disagreement on Monday night wasn’t plastic plates—It was balloons.

The ordinance originally included a ban on intentionally releasing helium-filled balloons in Newton, because balloon pieces pollute the environment and entangle and choke animals.

Then, Krintzman explained, Health & Human Services Commissioner Linda Walsh raised concerns that such a ban would be difficult to enforce and requested the language be changed to read that the City Council “strongly discourages” the release of helium balloons, along with an explanation of how balloons harm the environment. Krintzman said Newton’s chief operating officer, Jonathan Yeo, agreed and said the city’s parks can implement its own ban on releasing balloons.

So what was approved by the Programs & Services Committee had the “strongly discourages” language and not an all-out prohibition.

But, as others then mentioned, the new language would mean the provision isn’t just difficult to enforce. It’s impossible to enforce. On Monday, Councilor Bill Humphrey proposed an amendment to put the prohibition language back into the ordinance.

“I think we have to be clear on what’s allowed and what is not,” Councilor David Kalis said.

Councilor Brenda Noel said the balloon release ban should be the easiest part of the ordinance—which even dictates what kind of chopsticks restaurants can distribute—to support.

“Has anyone in this chamber seen a balloon release in the last ten years?” Noel asked. “Nobody’s releasing balloons anymore. I feel like that’s the easy one to ban. Most people have the common sense not to release helium balloons. And if we’re taking this kind of stance and we know the impact this has on the environment, I don’t see the danger in banning the release of helium balloons.”

Many in the chamber said they were concerned about any ordinance with vague language and without proper enforcement.

“I think we all ought to be concerned about the ability to equitably enforce something,” Councilor Marc Laredo said. “And if our commissioners—we’re supposed to trust their judgement—say ‘I’m going to have a hard time doing it, I think we ought to listen very carefully.”

Laredo said, though, that he’s against any language that says “discourage.”

“That is just absolutely meaningless as far as I’m concerned, and not the way you write statutes or ordinances or rules,” Laredo said.

A balloon bargain?

Since many balloon-release events happen in parks, Councilor Allison Leary suggested adding language to park use permits stating that releasing helium balloons is not allowed.

“I think that would go a long way to make the point that the city doesn’t want any balloons released,” Leary said.

Councilor Deb Crossley said she opposed adding the outright ban language to the ordinance but likes Leary’s idea of including it in permits.

“Let the city show the way on this and how it handles community events before we start at a kid’s birthday party,” Crossley said. “I hate seeing trash in the environment, and helium balloons are one of the worst. You can go down the beach and find a lot of them—strings attached, birds entangled—but I think we have to be reasonable as a first step.”

Danberg explained that while ordinances are typically clear and direct, the balloon provision was a tough one and the “strongly discourages” wording was a compromise.

“This is the only way we could get everybody to say yes,” Danberg said.

Laredo was going to propose a motion to take the “strongly discourages” language out, so there would be no ban and the matter would be up to the city’s permitting authorities. But that idea became moot when Humphrey’s amendment passed (14 in favor, eight against, two absent), so the balloon ban will take effect in March.