Advocates promoting bans on plastic shopping bags

Advocates of plastic bag ban ordinances for county towns met this week with officials in Bennington and with the Bennington County Solid Waste Alliance board. From left, front, former regional EPA director Judith Enck, Darby Hyde, Michelle Alexander, Srichchha Pradhan,and Barbara True-Weber, Mike Weber, and Elizabeth Schumacher in the second row.

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BENNINGTON — Advocates for bans on single-use plastic shopping bags met this week with officials on the

town and county levels to promote enactment of ban ordinances.

Members of Climate Advocates of Bennington gave a presentation to the Select Board Monday on the environmental damage a ban seeks to address and on proposals to spread information on the issue while demonstrating support through an ongoing petition drive.

The group also told Bennington officials they plan a public meeting next month or in March to expand the discussion throughout the county. Board members expressed support for a ban, pending details of the final ordinance wording.

The advocates have suggested an ordinance similar to one adopted in Brattleboro in July.

Several members of the group, which is associated with 350 Vermont, gave a similar presentation Wednesday during a meeting of the Bennington County Solid Waste Alliance board, which has representatives from 13 county towns.

Michelle Alexander, Elizabeth Schumacher and Barbara True-Weber, coordinator for the environmental advocacy group, provided an overview of plastics pollution and approaches to banning bags and other products to remove them from the waste stream.

They were joined by Judith Enck, former regional Environmental Protection Agency director, who currently teaches courses on plastics pollution at Bennington College, and two of her students. During a talk last year at the college, Enck called for a coalition of local groups and college students to promote bans and other changes here and around the nation to combat the worldwide effects of plastics pollution.

"We are happy to be a resource for local officials," Enck told the BCSWA board, referring to technical details of implementing a bag ban and the reasons advocates believe the issue must be addressed — and from the grass-roots level.

Nothing is likely to happen on the national level in the current political climate, Enck said, and attempts to pass statewide ban legislation typically are "killed at the Statehouse" after intense lobbying and spending from the plastics industry.

Around the county, movement toward state legislation "has always been from the ground up," she said.

Alexander provided study information on the build-up of plastics pollution in landfills and in the environment, especially in waterways and the oceans.

Only about 1 percent of single-use plastic bags are recycled, she said, while billions of bags are deposited in landfills and an estimated 8.8 million tons of plastic works its way downstream to the oceans each year. That trash is broken down by the action of water, waves and sunlight into microplastic bits that cause pollution and are consumed by waterlife and birds.

"What we are beginning to have is a plastic soup," she said, which not only harms fish, birds and other sealife like sea turtles but ends up in the seafood consumed by humans.

Concerns voiced

Reacting to the presentation, some members of the solid waste board raised concerns about enforcement of ordinances, especially in the smaller towns that have limited staff, and about the cost impacts on consumers and both local businesses and regional chains that operate in multiple communities and would have to deal with different requirements in each.

They also noted that any ordinances would have to be adopted by town select boards, as the solid waste board lacks that type of authority.

Schumacher said the advocates primarily want to work with and share information with the BCSWA, which has representatives from county towns, many of whom also hold local select board or other offices.

Alexander said the Bennington board also had suggested they approach the regional board about the idea of a countywide ordinance.

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"Our goal is to have a relationship," Schumacher said, adding that the proponents understand the regional group doesn't have authority to enact a regional ban.

"But you do have the capacity to help us with local governments," she said. "And I also understand that there is difficulty with the regulations, but I really hope that we can continue to work to figure out a solution for how to govern this initiative. It would be great to have it statewide, but I think the state needs to see that we are pushing it locally."

Janet Hurley, zoning administrator and planning director in Manchester and chairwoman of the Bennington County Regional Commission, described the reaction of her town's select board to a ban proposal presented by school students in October, when she said the board decided "to punt to the state," saying they would like to see a ban enacted on a statewide level.

Alexander said her group would be willing to do a presentation to the Manchester board on plastics pollution if that would move the issue along, but Hurley responded: "I think that is not what they need. They are with you. They just don't see how practically it's going [to be implemented]. It's going to put an enforcement burden on the town. Is it going to be enforceable and is it going to put businesses in that town at any kind of disadvantage?"

True-Weber and Enck said there have many municipal bag bans enacted around the country and have demonstrated how those issues might be handled.

Among those, Enck said, are Williamstown, Great Barrington and Adams, Mass., and Brattleboro and Wilmington in Southern Vermont. Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently proposed a ban in New York state, she said, but thus far only California and Hawaii have enacted statewide bans.

True-Weber said she had researched bans in towns similar to Bennington and had compiled information on such details and definitions of single-use bags, the alternative bags that are allowed under the ordinance; how bans are enforced and by which officials and what exemptions are allowed — such as for the plastic wrap on raw meat or poultry in a market.

Enck said of enforcement that such ordinances are typically self-enforcing to a large degree, the way people usually obey traffic regulations without a present threat of enforcement action.

Many businesses also typically comply without the threat of fines, in part because they want to be considered cooperative citizens of the community, she said.

Alexander told the Bennington board that most retail businesses in downtown Bennington already have switched to paper or other bags, adding that the group wants to continue outreach efforts to the business community around the county, to hear opinions and provide information about the goals of a ban.

They also plan to show the documentary "Bag It," about plastics pollution, in cooperation with Oldcastle Theatre Company.

Two students taking a course with Enck at Bennington College gave a short presentation on other types of plastics bans the advocates might promote in the future.

Darby Hyde discussed a method of greatly reducing the use of plastic straws in restaurants by only handing them out to customers upon request, rather than automatically.

The issue was highlighted by a video showing a plastic straw being extracted from a sea turtle's nose that was part of a National Geographic report last year on plastics in the oceans.

Srichchha Pradhan spoke about polystyrene (Styrofoam) bans communities have enacted to address the material, which cannot be recycled and can break down and absorb harsh chemicals while in water, posing a double threat to fish and other life in streams and the oceans.

Enck, and the Bennington students also have launched a Beyond Plastics website to help coordinate responses to plastics pollution around the country.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien


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