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Plastic bag ban is gaining steam in Middlebury

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Posted on January 3, 2019 |
By Christopher Ross



Plastic bags Maggie Eaton_5147 CMYK.jpg
MAGGIE EATON SHOWS off the single-use plastic bags she saved over the course of two years because she couldn’t avoid getting them. Eaton joined an effort asking Middlebury to outlaw such bags.

MIDDLEBURY — A proposed ordinance banning single-use plastic bags in Middlebury may soon go before the town’s voters. But first it has to go through the selectboard.

Because of environmental concerns around flimsy plastic bags used mostly in shopping, efforts to ban them have grown in recent years, with residents in two Vermont towns already outlawing them.

Middlebury resident Amy McAninch, Middlebury College student Amelia Miller and New Haven resident Maggie Eaton began collecting signatures for their petition in June, and say they probably have more than enough to ask the board to put the question on Middlebury’s Town Meeting Day ballot.

“More than 80 percent of the people we approached in Middlebury signed the petition,” Eaton said.

Middlebury residents use an estimated 4.5 million of these bags annually, costing local retailers $180,000. Green house gas emissions from making and shipping these bags amount to more than 120 metric tons a year, according to an online calculator referenced by Eaton and McAninch.

“The mass consumption of plastic products has created a plastic wasteland in our rivers, lakes, and oceans,” organizers said in a flyer they distributed around town. “No matter where they are released in the environment, plastic bags are so light that wind and water carry them into rivers, clogging storm drains and damaging infrastructure on their way to become lake and ocean pollution.”

The movement to ban plastic bags in Middlebury has earned the support of 12 local businesses so far, along with environmental nonprofits such as 350Vermont and the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.

Local schools are also getting involved.

At Mary Hogan Elementary School, fifth-grade students led by teacher Nora O’Leary plan to write letters in support of the ordinance, Eaton said.

Middlebury artist Lisa Rader, who teaches graphic design at the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center, has enlisted two of her students — junior Isabel Olson and her sister Fairley, who is a freshman — to design a poster in support of the campaign, and, if the bag-ban movement is successful, to develop a logo or illustration to adorn a reusable shopping tote that bag-ban organizers hope to distribute to local retailers to help them transition away from single-use bags.

“The project seemed a natural fit for the sisters, who have the design skills and also have a personal interest in this project because of its focus on preserving and protecting our natural environment,” Rader said. “The design is at the very beginning stages, but the tote will feature a catch phrase and a graphic.”

The sisters bring to their work a strong sense of community and support for the environment.

“We feel that this movement is incredibly important to the health of our environment in Middlebury, in Vermont, across the United States, and even on our entire planet,” they said in an email to the Independent. “The banning of single-use plastic bags is going to take an army, not a village, which is why we need as much support as we can get from the residents of Middlebury.”

Support is exactly what organizers are hoping to generate over the next six weeks, as at least five outreach sessions are planned:

•  Jan. 8, 7 p.m.: The public is invited to attend an info session at Ilsley Public Library.

•  Jan. 14, 4 p.m.: Organizers and supporters will make a presentation to the Middlebury Conservation Commission.

•  Jan. 20, 7:30 p.m.: 350Vermont invites county parents to a “Mother Up” meet-up dinner at the Middlebury Rec Center.

•  Jan. 23, 10 a.m.: The meeting room of the Middlebury town offices will play host to another info session.

•  Feb. 12, 3 p.m.: Organizers will make their case at the Residence at Otter Creek.

A GROWING MOVEMENT

Depending on the timing, Middlebury could become the second or third town in Vermont to enact a ban on single-use plastic bags.

With overwhelming voter support, Brattleboro enacted a similar ordinance that went into effect July 1, 2018.

In December the Wilmington selectboard unanimously approved an ordinance outlawing single-use plastic bags, which will take effect July 1, 2019, unless a petition for a vote to disapprove the ordinance is signed by at least 5 percent of the town’s voters and delivered to the town clerk by Jan. 31, according to a recent report in the Bennington Banner.

Attempts by the Vermont legislature to address the issue have failed to get off the ground so far, but regional efforts are gaining momentum. The cities of Boston and Montreal have both recently outlawed various plastic bags, and the Conservation Law Foundation is working to outlaw plastic grocery checkout bags throughout New England.

Support for the issue may have increased in recent months after a series of reports by National Geographic magazine illustrated the devastation caused by global plastic pollution. The cover of the magazine’s June issue, “Planet or Plastic?,” featured a mostly submerged plastic shopping bag, “the tip of the iceberg,” and was followed by in-depth interactive presentations on the magazine’s website.

Elsewhere in Addison County, students from the Environmental Action Group at Mount Abraham Union High School contacted the town of Bristol on Dec. 6, asking for information about pursuing a similar petition.

There is some question whether such a question must be put before voters. Last summer a group of Bristol residents sued the Bristol selectboard after it rejected a petition asking for a townwide vote on an unrelated issue. That suit is still being litigated.

In Middlebury, however, “the selectboard decided a few years ago that they would put petitioned questions on the ballot in an advisory capacity,” said Town Clerk Ann Webster. “To completely reject a petition has created more bad feeling and having the vote gives the selectboard an understanding of where the voters stand on the issue.”

Webster pointed out that this was a policy that could be changed by any current selectboard at any time.”

McAninch, Miller and Eaton in June knew they needed 251 signatures — equal to 5 percent of the town’s registered voters — to put the question on this year’s town meeting ballot. That number went up last autumn, however, when increased interest in the 2018 midterm elections led to an increase in the town’s voter roll. Organizers now have 330 signatures (though they need to be vetted by the town clerk) and are confident they will have more than enough signatures to account for the uptick, they said.

Middlebury has not yet received the petition. The deadline to submit it is Jan. 17.

BAG RECYCLING

In the meantime, the Addison County Solid Waste Management District has announced that it will accept certain plastic bags — including grocery and takeout bags, bread bags and Ziplocs — for recycling at its Middlebury transfer station. They may not be mixed with other recycling materials, however, and must be brought directly to the transfer station. For more information, including a full list of accepted items, visit addisoncountyrecycles.org.

Eaton had been waiting for the movement to ban plastic bags to take hold, she said.

When she and her husband returned to Vermont to retire in 2016 and discovered that, unlike their previous home in California, Addison County did not recycle plastic bags, she contacted the solid waste district. Over the next two years, as she encouraged officials to make the transition, she started a collection.

“For two years I collected every single plastic bag I couldn’t avoid getting, and I stowed them away,” she said.

Eaton was astonished by the number of bags accumulated by just two adults and two dogs.

Of all the bags she collected, only a small boxful failed to qualify for recycling. As for the rest:

“I’m taking the whole lot to the transfer station after Christmas,” she said.

For more information about the proposed ban, contact Amy McAninch at [email protected]

Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected]

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