Effort to ban plastic bags gains steam

MIDDLEBURY — Supporters of a proposal to ban single-use plastic bags for retail transactions in Middlebury are ramping up their lobbying, and sewing, efforts as a critical town vote on the issue nears.
Middlebury voters on March 5 will decide whether to encourage their selectboard to draft an ordinance that would prevent local retailers from offering customers single-use plastic bags to carry out their purchases.
Maggie Eaton, leader of the petition drive that resulted in Article 12 — making it only the upcoming Town Meeting Day ballot — made her pitch to the Middlebury selectboard on Feb. 19.
She and her colleagues are using their hands as well as their mouths to sell the plastic bags ban. In addition to verbally pushing for the measure, some of the more “crafty” supporters are busy making scores of reusable fabric bags to tangibly sell the idea that plastic bags are an environmental loser and aren’t needed.
“One way to think about the plastic bag pollution problem is that your kitchen faucet is running and your kitchen is flooding, and the first thing you do is you turn off the tap and then you clean up,” Eaton explained to selectboard members. “The problem with the plastic bag pollution is that we have been doing exactly the opposite. Plastic bags have been gushing out of the faucet and we’ve devoted efforts to try to clean up the mess…
“Our vision for the plastic bags ban is akin to turning off the tap, and then we can clean up,” she added. “We’re here to encourage the selectboard to consider turning off the tap of these single-use plastic bags in Middlebury.”
Approximately 80 percent of the people who were presented with the Middlebury petition agreed to sign it, according to Eaton. She added 13 Middlebury businesses have endorsed the ban thus far, including Buy Again Alley, Dan Freeman’s Leatherworks, Edgewater Gallery, Main Street Stationery, Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op, Sweet Cecily and the Vermont Book Shop.
This is Eaton’s second push to get a community to ban plastic bags. She spearheaded a successful ordinance pitch for Carmel, Calif., while she was residing there.
Eaton and her colleagues have spent the past few months educating shoppers on plastic bag alternatives, while explaining the potential impact of the petition on their operations.
“We’ve developed a list of strategies for storeowners so any of the negative economic consequences of the bag ban could be ameliorated,” she said. “Merchants will be able to save money, because they won’t have to buy plastic or paper bags if everybody brings their own.”
Organizers recently recruited two students from the Patricia Hannaford Career Center’s graphic arts program to design a Middlebury-specific, reusable shopping bag and assist with a related public service campaign.
That public service campaign will benefit from what Eaton described as a “ton of research” on single-use plastic bags and realistic alternatives.
“We want to share the information and experience we have so that the town… can transition to a plastic bag-free environment,” Eaton said.
Middlebury College student Molly Babbin recently presented the selectboard with a petition in support of the proposed ban. The petition, signed by 112 Middlebury students, states in part:
“We students highly value the natural areas and wildlife in Middlebury. We believe that it is this town’s responsibility to keep our woods and waterways clean, protect all species, and preserve the natural beauty that attracted us to live here. Our current consumption of plastic bags is not aligned with our town values.”
Petition organizers placed local consumption of single-use plastic bags at 4,513,500 annually — a rate of 513 per person per year, according to the Mass Green Plastic Bag Cost Calculator.
Citing National Geographic, the petitioners asserted 9 million tons of plastic enter the ocean every year, to the extent there will be “more plastic in the ocean than fish” by 2050.
“We believe that a ban on plastic bags represents something much bigger than a single piece of legislation,” the petition continues. “It represents a movement of increasing environmental awareness and energy toward change.”
Babbin said plastic bag bans have already proved effective in states like California and Hawaii, as well as in hundred of communities throughout the country.
A group of local residents has been meeting regularly to craft reusable shopping bags using recycled fabric ranging from unwanted tablecloths to old T-shirts. The environmentally sensitive sewers include Marita Schine, Bethany Menkart, Pat Horn, Jutta Miska, Pat Chase and  Zora Duquette-Hoffman. Friday saw several sewers toiling away at Schine’s home. The women‘s collective goal is to make enough reusable bags to present one to each participant at Middlebury’s March 4 annual town meeting.
“There’s already a growing excitement in the community,” Schine told the selectboard.
Miska’s store, Buy Again Alley, transitioned to paper and reusable bags last year. The tipping point for Miska came when her daughter Elisabeth — a marine biologist — explained the havoc plastic bags were wreaking on turtles. A turtle can mistake a plastic bag for a jellyfish meal, with disastrous health consequences.
“My daughter showed me pictures of the turtles,” Miska recalled. “That really got to me.”
Miska will recycle her inventory of plastic bags at the Addison County Solid Waste Management District transfer station. Meanwhile, her customers have been very pleased with the reusable alternatives they receive with purchases. Only one customer has specifically asked for a plastic bag, and that’s because it was raining outside, according to Miska.
Menkart is a member of “Huddlebury,” a group of mostly local women who meet monthly to discuss common interests and important causes behind which to rally. It was through Huddlebury that Menkart learned of the plastic bags issue, and she decided to help make the reusable bags. Each one takes around 30 minutes to make, she estimated.
“It’s a great way community members can do something tangible to make a difference,” said Menkart, an avid sewer.
“It’s time to get rid of plastics.”
Middlebury selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter praised the petitioners for their efforts.
“I applaud you for following the process the way we intended it to be — to generate (support) from the community up, as opposed to the selectboard dictating something that impacts everyone,” Carpenter said. “We’ll see how the town votes… The education you’ve been doing has been beneficial for everyone.”
Selectman Victor Nuovosaid any new town ordinance stemming from a positive vote on article 12 should speak to more than plastics.
“It seems to me you need an ordinance to ban paper and plastic bags,” Nuovo said. “We really need to be upfront about what our ordinance seeks to accomplish. It’s a very complicated problem and we can’t just address the tip of the iceberg.”
Eaton agreed with the broader environmental vision, and believes everyone must share in the responsibility. She noted 100 billion single-use plastic bags are used and discarded each year in the U.S.
“We’ve all contributed to the problem; we therefore all have a responsibility to fix it,” Eaton said. “Towns can influence cities, cities can influence Vermont. We’d love it if Middlebury could participate in this.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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