State could follow town's lead in plastic bag ban

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BRATTLEBORO — Residents who pushed for a ban on single-use plastic bags in Brattleboro are now hoping the new ordinance inspires other communities and perhaps the state.

"We hope this ordinance will be an example for surrounding communities like Dummerston, Newfane and other communities in Windham [County] and then for other counties to pass similar ordinances," said Tim Maciel, who led efforts to bring the ban to a townwide vote in March via a petition. "That's our hope. That's our anticipation."

Maciel said a statewide group is being organized to support a bill introduced by Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, during the last legislative session. The bill would eliminate the use of single-use plastic bags by banning them. Another bill would place a tax on them, Mrowicki said.

Brattleboro is the first community in Vermont to prohibit the use of certain plastic bags. Town staff reviewed ordinances from municipalities in Massachusetts.

Several countries have launched initiatives to stop use of the bags, Mrowicki said. Vermont could become the first state in America to outlaw them.

Single-use plastic bags 2.25 mils thick or less will no longer be allowed in Brattleboro starting July 1, 2018. Retailers will be issued warning notices for initial violations and fines will start out at $50 with a waiver fee of $25 then reach $100 with a waiver fee of $50.

Thin-film plastic bags used for dry cleaning, newspapers, produce, meat, bulk foods and wet items are exempt from the ban as is any flexible transparent covering for uncooked raw meat, poultry, raw fish, hard cheese, cold cuts, fruit, vegetables, baked goods or bread.

Regarding thickness proposed for the statewide ban, Mrowicki said, "We haven't gotten to that level of specifics." He is looking at thinner bags found in supermarkets and sometimes used by other retailers.

Several school groups came to the Statehouse to testify, Mrowicki said.

"It's something kids learn about, especially the massive plastic buildup in the ocean," he said. "Because it causes ubiquitous blight on the landscape as well as to wildlife."

Mrowicki believes consumers can live without the bags because they have done so in the not-so-distant past. He also pointed to "biodegradable options" being available.

"There seems to be some momentum growing once people realized there are other options, it wouldn't be the end of the world as some of the business retailers suggested when we started to take testimony," he said, believing a ban could be "a good selling point for Vermont and enhance our reputation as a green state."

Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro, told the Reformer she supports the town ban and would support a statewide ban.

"While it might be inconvenient to some, I believe that we need to take responsibility for our trash," she said. "The consequences of inaction are great; damage to marine life and to our food chain, release of dioxins, etc. We can look to the example of recycling, composting, and pay-as-you-throw in Brattleboro. It was difficult to implement at first, but these measures have reduced trash collection by half."

Kathleen Whallon, of Brattleboro, thanked Select Board members on Nov. 21 for their vote which sealed the deal for the local ban.

"We think a lot of time has been spent on it," Whallon said. "I would really hope that we don't go back from that 2.25 mils. I think that's as good a place to start in encouraging people to reduce their use of plastic bags."

The board previously decided on the thickness after several failed motions. Board member Tim Wessel suggested the 2.25 mils that won final approval in a 3-2 vote.

Sam's Outdoor Outfitters owner Stanley "Pal" Borofsky had attended meetings to fight for a thicker threshold than the original proposal for 1 mil and under. The Downtown Brattleboro Alliance supported the ban after taking a survey among its members.

Maciel recalled doubt from a resident who signed his petition and applauded the board for proving her wrong.

"When I first presented this, I was told this isn't something the Select Board does," Maciel told the board. "You handle mainly budgetary matters. I've read the mission statement of the Select Board. I would encourage you to pass similar ordinances on plastic water bottles, Styrofoam cups. These are all scourges on the planet."

Maciel urged stores to adopt a "bag tree" like the Brattleboro Food Co-op. Reusable bags can be taken by customers if they have forgotten theirs at home.

Maciel said he spoke with store managers at Hannaford and Price Chopper.

"They said there is no problem whatsoever in transitioning, getting rid of them," Maciel said. "They said they could do it overnight."

Some residents believe eight months is a long time to wait for the ordinance to take effect. But Select Board members opposed changing the date. Another reading of the ordinance would have been required and the time is meant to give businesses a chance to prepare.

Howard Fairman called the ban "a feel-good ordinance" that put Brattleboro merchants at a disadvantage while having "no conceivable impact" on the environment. He said proponents should urge state leaders to ban the bags.

Select Board Chairwoman Kate O'Connor and board member John Allen both voted against adopting the ordinance at the 2.25 mils thickness. They both thought "single use" bags meant those with 1 mil thickness or less.

"But I'm glad we're doing something," said Allen.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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