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Editorial: Uproar over ban on plastic bags, expanded bottle bill befuddles

When is enough debate enough, and when can common sense simply prevail without tipping off the lobbyists and setting up a battle within the state legislature? Both questions come to mind with respect to the two amendments added last week at the last minute to a bill that would establish “universal recycling of solid waste.”
The bill itself, H.485, has sailed under the radar screen of most Vermonters, drawing almost no controversy. In that legislation, Vermonters will be strongly encouraged to separate their trash into three parts — regular, recyclable and organic — within the next six to eight years (2020 as passed by the House, and 2018 as is currently stated in the Senate version.) Trash haulers will be required to provide separate receptacles for each trash classification.
We say “strongly encouraged,” not “required,” because individuals don’t have to separate their trash, but they will pay substantially more if they don’t. Trash haulers won’t be allowed to charge for recyclables, but are being given authority to raise rates for regular trash and can charge for organics. Recyclables, by the way, include newspapers, magazines and cardboard boxes, and will include “leaf and yard residuals and wood waste” as of July 1, 2015.
It is a bill, in fact, that will require substantial change in the daily behavior of those who do not already separate their trash. It’s received little attention, perhaps, for two reasons: most people in Vermont philosophically agree with the idea of recycling; and sponsors of the bill got the backing of the trash-hauling industry from the get-go.
While H.485, has drawn no vocal opposition, two amendments added to the bill in the Senate late last week have prompted an uproar among some legislators, which might threaten the bill’s passage.
One amendment would ban plastic bags used at grocery stores; the other expands the current bottle-redemption law to include plastic water bottles and other containers (such as juices) that are now exempt. The amendments were added by Democrats Mark MacDonald of Williamstown and Richard McCormack of Bethel, and Republican Joe Benning of Lyndon, over the objections of Randy Brock, R-Swanton, and committee chairperson Virginia Lyons, D-Williston.
Opponents argue that there has been a lack of testimony from industry players, there might be unintended consequences, and they abhor the practice of tacking on amendments that otherwise might not pass to popular bills. Even Gov. Peter Shumlin has chimed in with a threat to veto the legislation if it survives conference committee and is passed by the Legislature.
Really? All because three senators, in a non-partisan fashion, want to expand the bottle-exemption law and phase out the use of plastic bags at grocery stores — both amendments, by the way, mesh well with the original bill’s intent and subject matter.
Perhaps we should step back a pace or two and ask the obvious: Does it currently make any sense to pay 5 cents for soda and other containers of beverages, and not do the same for water or juices? Of course not. If the purpose is to clean up the roadsides and eliminate this source of garbage from the waste-stream, then let’s find a way to do it and not create exemptions that leave the job half done. Many other states have done it successfully for the past several years. Why can’t Vermont?
And we all know that plastic bags are not environmentally friendly, no matter how much more convenient they may be. Just like eating our broccoli, sometimes we need to be coerced into changing bad behavior.
Both amendments do the right thing. We know that.
And even though Sen. Brock and others may claim the issues have not been fully vetted this session, the issue has been talked about off-and-on for the past decade or more and, frankly, it’s just not that complicated.
Just do it, and make the necessary adjustments.
We are disappointed the governor would respond by threatening a veto, but can only imagine it’s because of the process, not the intent of the amendments, and would back off if this bill — which is laden with worthwhile changes — lands on his desk.

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