By KATHRYN FLAGG
BRISTOL — According to some number-crunching students at Mt. Abraham Union High School, the count of plastic bags that Vermonters use each year is staggeringly high — somewhere in the neighborhood of roughly 180 million bags, in fact.
“And that’s a conservative estimate,” said Mt. Abe physics teacher Tom Tailer.
Which is exactly why Mt. Abe seniors Alex Horn, Amelia Norris, Torin Olivetti and Cooper Thompson, along with Tailer, are crusading to cut back on the number of plastic bags being used in Vermont.
The bags, they argue, pose risks to the environment — and Vermont’s status as a tourist destination — that could be avoided if more consumers used reusable cloth shopping bags.
They propose that the Vermont Legislature encourage just that by imposing a “bag fee” of six cents per plastic bag, a surcharge the students think could raise as much as $7 million in revenues for the state and cut the use of plastic bags by Vermonters nearly in half.
They pitched this plan in Montpelier to the House Ways and Means committee on April 28, when the students and Tailer testified on bill H. 262, “An Act Relating to Tax on Plastic Bags.”
“It’s really a sustainability fee,” said Tailer. “The question is, ‘Are you willing to be sustainable?’ If the answer is ‘no,’ then you need to pay for that.”
Plastic bags pose a threat to Vermont for several reasons, the students told the lawmakers. First, Olivetti said in a recent interview, the bags are produced using petroleum, a limited resource that is both expensive and harmful to the environment.
The bags also break down over time into smaller pieces, Horn said, which are toxic and pose a threat to animals that unwittingly consume them.
“Just within the last two years in the Pacific Ocean, two giant piles of floating plastic have been found,” Tailer said, mentioning one pile alone in the east Pacific that is larger than the state of Texas.
“The reason the landfills in the United States aren’t overflowing is because so much plastic is dumped into the oceans,” Olivetti added.
The students also said that plastic bags are difficult to contain in landfills, and frequently blow around — ultimately marring the landscape that helps Vermont draw tourists. Thompson said he’s noticed plastic litter on the rise in Vermont.
“We can try to clean it up at Green Up Day,” said Tailer, “but the plastic is getting ahead of us.”
That’s where the so-called “tax” on plastic bags comes in.
Attaching a fee to plastic bags acquired at the store, the students hope, would encourage the use of more reusable shopping bags, while simultaneously raising revenues for the state that could be funneled into sustainability initiatives. The revenues could also be put toward subsidizing reusable shopping bags for low-income Vermonters, so they wouldn’t be unfairly burdened by the bag fee.
They’d also like to see the state produce and promote a reusable “Vermonter Bag,” which would promote local goods and services while simultaneously providing reusable bags that could be sold at cost to smaller stores that couldn’t afford to peddle their own totes.
The project got under way last fall, when Horn first took interest in the issue. He began researching just how other countries had tackled the problem, and found out that China had recently banned plastic bags altogether. Ireland, he discovered, had attached a 25-cent fee to the bags, and different cities in the United States had taken up similar initiatives.
In fact, one county in California, Tailer chimed in, banded together to ban plastic bags altogether, an agreement reached only after every merchant in the county signed on to the ban.
The bans correlate with dramatic savings in oil, which is used to produce plastic bags. China, Olivetti said, is saving somewhere in the neighborhood of 27 million gallons of oil each year as a result of their ban. Were the United States to adopt a similar ban, the country could save 11 or 12 million gallons, he said.
The students aren’t interested in pursuing an outright ban on the plastic bags, but they said it’s important that consumers know that PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, a major component in the plastic bags, can’t be recycled.
Polyethylene, another component in the bags, theoretically can be recycled — but that prospect is incredibly expensive. Recycling a ton of the material costs $4,000 — but the recycled matter can only be sold for $32.
Since last fall, the Mt. Abe students have reached out to students at other schools around the state, founding a group called the Vermont Sustainable Consumer Initiative.
They also tapped into their local legislators, urging Rep. Dave Sharpe, D-Bristol, to introduce H.262.
When the students pitched their “bag fee” plan to the House Ways and Means Committee last week, some legislators were on board. But Tailer said they encountered more “polarization” on the issue than they’d expected.
“People seemed to be either very much in favor of it, or confused by it,” Tailer said.
Olivetti said some legislators at the meeting also voiced concerns that the bag fee could drive business out of Vermont and into neighboring states, like New Hampshire.
Sharpe, who sits on the committee, said he didn’t think that argument held water.
Sharpe said he’s been interested in the problem since his time on the Bristol selectboard, when he remembers the town’s landfill was struggling to control plastic bags that were “blowing around all the time.”
“They’re wasteful, in my opinion, and a nuisance,” Sharpe said.
Measures similar to H.262 have been introduced in the past by others, Sharpe said, but, at the urging of the students this year he spearheaded the introduction of the legislation.
The Mt. Abe students hope that Sharpe isn’t alone his opinion of plastic bags. They hope their argument in favor of raising revenue helps move the bag fee forward.
“Originally our goal was to decrease consumption,” Horn said, “but politically at this time it makes sense to raise revenue as well.”
With the Legislature nearing the end of the session, H.262 will likely be tabled until next January. Nevertheless, the Mt. Abe students are enthusiastic about the bill’s future.
And though Sharpe said the Ways and Means Committee was “perhaps … a little distracted” by talk of budget cuts and taxes, the students made a good argument for the bag fee.
“They made a great presentation and we took it seriously, in the sense that it would provide some tax money for the state on the one hand and on the other hand it could clean up a problem that we’ve had in the environment,” Sharpe said.
In a time when the Vermont Legislature is considering upping the “sin” tax on things like cigarettes and alcohol, Olivetti and Tailer argued that plastic bag use is likewise “sinful.”
Tailer also argued that plastic will become increasingly scarce and expensive in the years ahead. The question, he said, isn’t whether or not to transition away from products like plastic bags, but when.