Bag ban 'smooth and successful'

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BRATTLEBORO — Vermont's first town to ban single-use plastic bags is reporting good results after the first three months.

"I think the transition has been smooth and successful in large part because our three main supermarkets — Hannaford, Market 32 and the Brattleboro Food Co-op — have done a really good job of implementing new procedures," Assistant Town Manager Patrick Moreland said Tuesday. "Their immediate participation has helped to make this really successful."

So far, he said, no fines have been issued and fewer than 10 businesses have been granted deferments that would keep them from being fined for giving consumers the bags. The ordinance allows businesses up to two six-month extensions after the first six-month deferment.

"A couple of stores have very unique products that we're still working with on what's the right solution for them," Moreland said. "One of them sells frames, which are pretty large."

Moreland said the argument most consistently accepted by the town manager's office comes from businesses working through existing stock, some with their names on the bags. He said all extensions have been granted up until Dec. 31 and in each case, he has been in regular contact with the owner of manager about the plan moving forward. Ultimately, the goal is to bring the entire business community into compliance.

The ordinance, spurred on by a petition that led to a 1,034-317 town-wide vote in favor of the ban last year, went into effect July 1. Town officials expected "widespread compliance," Town Manager Elwell said a day after the ban went into effect.

A few days later, the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance rolled out its Bag Share program. Reusable cloth bags were made available at the Brattleboro Food Co-Op, Hotel Pharmacy, Brown & Roberts Ace Hardware, Experienced Goods and Brooks Memorial Library. People could take bags or leave them for others.

"Most of the stores in Brattleboro were doing this before the ordinance," DBA Executive Director Stephanie Bonin said Tuesday. "The ordinance and the bag share program reinforces the commitment and ensures we are united as an entire town community."

Moreland said the co-op had moved away from the bags "some time ago."

The DBA said it collaborated with climate activist group 350Brattleboro, residents and business owners on the project to "help reinforce and facilitate the routine of bringing reusable bags when people shop, decrease the stress of forgetting bags at home while making purchases, and provide a community resource for families with limited income if they are unable to acquire reusable cloth bags."

One-thousand bags were made using a design by Ryan McCormick, who won a contest. Now, the DBA is looking to raise $5,000 for a second run of bags.

"This will ensure that the program is a success by nurturing and cultivating the habitual nature of a share program. This is not a one-hit wonder," the DBA said in a press release. "Everyone is watching Brattleboro as we lead with every step. Vermont Public Interest Group, the mayor of Montpelier, Connecticut River Conservancy, Wilmington and several other Vermont towns have all contacted us to guide and support their work in adopting a plastic bag ordinance."

Hannaford has taken the ban a step forward.

"To help the environment, this store will be charging 5 cents for each paper shopping bag on Oct. 8," a new sign in the supermarket says. "Please remember your reusable bags — the sustainable choice."

Market 32 has done likewise. Customers will pay 5 cents for disposable handle-less paper bags and 10 cents for each handled paper bag. They will receive 3 cents rebate for ever bag, box or tote brought to the store for reuse.

"As we continued to discount heavy duty reusable bags in an effort to help the community transition forward, we hoped that the noble intent of the law would encourage conversion to heavy duty reusables," Mona Golub, vice president of public relations and consumer services for Price Chopper, said Wednesday in a press release. "In actuality, most customers converted to paper bags while fewer than 15 percent invested in long term reusable alternatives. Our follow through is intended to drive results toward non-disposable solutions."

Price Chopper said paper bags cost more to recycle than plastic bags and do not biodegrade easily in landfills due to their "inherent lack of oxygen." Also, paper bags are less likely to be reused and have a higher cost and larger carbon footprint associated with production and distribution, according to the store.

"Behavioral change is a challenge in this convenience-driven era, but the prospect of retail, government, consumers and environmental advocates working together to diminish the production, distribution and disposal of bag waste has great merit, now and into the future," Golub said. "Price Chopper/Market 32 fully supports this effort and is committed to investing our resources in changing the way we purchase, stock, distribute, promote, sign and pack reusables in an effort to help our customers transition to whichever long term solution best suits them."

Moreland said he thinks the environmental benefits will be slow to see.

"But as each community empowers itself to make these choices, we can all feel we're making a positive impact for the planet," he said, adding that it may be one small step toward getting bags off the ocean floor but "it's important. And it's what the community wanted to do so it's nice to be able to do it."

Moreland suggests other municipalities work through their town attorney.

"The vote was overwhelmingly in favor of making this transition so the direction was very clear," he said. "From there, it's drafting language with your attorney that's acceptable."

He recommended giving the community enough notice. Brattleboro Select Board members approved the ordinance in December but it did not take effect until July.

Brattleboro prohibits the use of thin-film single-use plastic bags with a thickness of less than 2.25 mils. These bags are intended for transporting purchased products one time. Exempt from the ban are thin-film plastic bags used to hold dry cleaning, newspapers, produce, meat, bulk foods, wet items and similar merchandise. Also exempt are any flexible transparent plastic for covering uncooked raw meat, poultry, raw fish, hard cheese, cold cuts, fruit, vegetable products, baked goods and bread.

The town's ordinance says its purpose is to promote "public health, safety, welfare, and the responsible use of resources and protection of the environment. It seeks to mitigate the effect the single-use plastic bags provided within the town, and encourage the use of reusable bags."

The town manager is responsible for issuing fines. A warning notice is served for a first-time violation. If another occurs within one year, there will be a second warning. After that, fines will include $50 for the first offense with a waiver fee of $25 and $100 or a $50 waiver fee for the second and all other offenses. A retail establishment cannot be penalized more than once within 24 hours.

After residents adapted to the implementation of Pay As You Throw and then biweekly trash collection, Moreland called the community's responses to changes in the municipal solid waste program "impressive."

"In this instance, the commercial community of Brattleboro has equally been up to the task of making long term changes in a short period of time," he said.

In Wilmington, Select Board member Sarah is drafting language on a similar ordinance.

"Once I have it, I will present to the Select Board," Wilmington Town Manager Scott Tucker said in an email Tuesday. "Perhaps next month."

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

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