Three Vermont towns seek bans on plastic bags

MIDDLEBURY — Outside Middlebury Town Hall, Paula Guarnaccia and Jack Mayer were manning the “bag-tree” as residents cast their ballots on Town Meeting Day.
Instead of leaves on this particular tree, there were cloth bags handmade by a community knitting club, and they were given away to anyone who asked for one.
“Not a lot of bags have been taken because so many people are saying ‘oh I already have my bags’,” Guarnaccia said. “The community is hip that way.”
Residents in Burlington and Middlebury voted in support of single-use plastic bans — joining Manchester which voted in favor of a similar measure during its Town Meeting on Saturday.
With these votes, the three municipalities follow in the footsteps of Brattleboro, which first adopted a ban on single-use plastics that went into effect on July 1.
Middlebury supported the measure to “advise and encourage” its selectboard to enact an ordinance to ban retailers from providing single-use carry-out plastic bags to consumers. The preliminary numbers show residents supported the ballot question 838-211.
Voters in Burlington voted overwhelmingly in favor of a similar ballot item Tuesday to advise and encourage the city council to enact a plastic reduction policy that would ban not just single-use plastic bags but also straws, stirrers and Styrofoam food containers.
The preliminary result in Burlington was 7,381 votes — 84 percent — in favor of the ballot measure and 1,429 — 16 percent — against.
On Saturday, Manchester, which is home to one of Vermont’s largest shopping outlets with more than 40 stores, voted overwhelmingly to urge its selectboard to ban single-use plastic bags. Only a handful of residents dissented during the vote, according to The Manchester Journal.
Students from Manchester Elementary Middle School, and their teacher read a letter written by the entire fifth-grade class in favor of the ban.
Sage Lalor, a student at Burr and Burton, told the Bennington Banner she wants “to live in a place that doesn’t sit back and wait for others to act. I want to live in a place where we live out our values.”
New studies have shown that disposable plastics do not biodegrade and are a major source of pollution, poisoning ecosystems and the sea creatures that live in the world’s oceans.
Two bills in the Statehouse this session, one in the House and another in the Senate, would place statewide bans on single-use plastics. There is also a House bill, H.206, that would ban non-reusable plastic through an amendment to the charter of the city of Montpelier.
The legislation in the House, H.506, differs somewhat from the Senate bill, S.113. The Senate bill bans plastic bags, plastic straws and styrofoam take out containers on July 1, 2020. The House bill imposes a 5 cent fee on paper bags and bans single use plastic bags on July 1, 2020.
Paul Burns, the executive director of Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG), said in testimony before the House Committee on Government Operations that focusing on plastic bags may seem like the tip of the iceberg, but his hope is that manufacturers will start to take notice and that bans will be expanded to include six-pack rings, glitter, and plastic bead party necklaces.
“It’s pretty clear we’re starting with some of the things that you might call the low-hanging fruit in the area of plastic pollution,” Burns said. “I think it is ordinances like this, and perhaps state legislation that you may consider this session that will begin to send a message to manufacturers that you cannot continue to find, you know, just uses for this material without any sense of responsibility.”
The influential Vermont Retail & Grocers Association (VRGA), which represents more than 700 businesses in Vermont, supports the House bill.
Erin Sigrist, the president of VRGA, whose board of directors includes representatives from Shaw’s Supermarket, Hannaford supermarkets, and the dairy giant Hood, testified Friday in the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy that her organization would prefer a statewide rule and a phased-in program.
“The VRGA doesn’t have an interest in having a patchwork. So we would prefer if some towns are going to consider bans, then we should do it statewide and we should all be on the same page whether we are talking retailers or consumers,” Sigrist said.
Sigrist said her concern and that of businesses is that without a fee on paper bags, the consumption of plastic will decrease but it will simply be replaced by an increase in paper bags and paper waste.
The VRGA also says one truckload of plastic bags is equivalent to seven truckloads of paper bags. By allowing paper without a fee for the consumer, retailers will be on the hook for up to six times the cost of what they were paying for plastic bags.
Sigrist said this is the first time in many years that the VRGA has come out in support of any new ban or fee but she said the organization feels strongly that without a fee on paper “it’s just shifting a practice from plastic to paper.”
Patrick Moreland, the assistant city manager of Brattleboro, told the House Committee on Government Operations on Friday that the city’s bag ban has been very successful and that it has dramatically reduced the amount of plastic pollution in the community.
“I just want to make clear and let everybody know that we’re not out knocking on doors, you know, saying, ‘Show us your bags,’” Moreland said.
Moreland also gave credit to the two large chain grocery stores in the city, Hannaford and Market 32, for how quickly they stopped using plastic bags.
“Both of these big corporate giants turned on a dime. You know, on June 30, they were still giving away plastic bags, but by July 1 those were gone and nowhere to be found. They began aggressively selling reusable bags,” Moreland said. “Right away, everybody had the opportunity to see that this was really possible.”
If Vermont chooses to ban single-use plastic bags, it would join California, which in 2014 became the first state to ban plastic bags at large retail stores, and Hawaii as the only states to enact such measures — Washington, D.C., also has a ban in place.
Several major cities have already instituted plastic bag bans and/or fees for the bags, including Boulder, Colorado, New York City, Boston, Portland, Maine, and Los Angeles.
More than 90 plastic bag-related bills have been introduced throughout the U.S. in 2019 — with most of them suggesting a ban or a fee on the single-use plastic.
Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy member Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex-Orleans, said he is in favor of discouraging people from using plastic, but said it is also important to make sure people remember to bring their bags to grocery stores and that a small fee will help to enforce that behavior.
“What I hate about any of the bans is some days you go out of the house and you forget your bags,” Rodgers said. “Rather than not having a bag or running back out to the car, you would pay the however-many-cents it is to be able to carry your stuff out.”

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