Plastic bag ban on hold pending new state legislation

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury selectboard is re-evaluating the town’s new, “Ad Hoc Plastic Bag Ordinance Committee” in light of the Legislature’s recent approval of a far-reaching plastics ban that’s likely to become law by July 1.
The selectboard formed the committee early last month in response to Middlebury residents’ resounding, 838-211 support of a 2019 Town Meeting Day resolution requesting a ban of single-use plastic bags used in local retail transactions. The five-member panel had been charged with crafting a local law to meet the spirit of that vote.
But that was before the Legislature had passed bill S.113, which among other things:
•Bans single-use, plastic carryout bags at the point of sale (cash register).
•Allows paper bags, requiring a 10-cent fee for larger/heavy duty grocery type of paper.
•Bans plastic straws and plastic stirrers.
•Bans single-use polystyrene for food but not for trays for meat in grocery stores.
•Sets up a study group to look at single-use plastic in the waste stream.
•Allows an existing inventory exemption until July 1, 2021.
Of particular significance to Middlebury — and other communities considering local plastics laws — is that S.113 specifically preempts “a municipal ordinance, bylaw, or charter adopted or enacted before July 1, 2020, that regulates or addresses the use, sale or provision of single-use plastic carryout bags.”
So suddenly, Middlebury has found itself with a committee considering a local ordinance that would be superseded by a new statewide law that takes the plastic-products ban farther than local advocates had contemplated.
The selectboard, at its most recent May 25 meeting, was split on the future of the committee, which has yet to meet. Some officials suggested the panel should suspend activities pending the final fate of S.113. Local lawmakers have advised that Gov. Phil Scott will either sign the bill or allow it to pass into law without his signature on July 1. He hasn’t threatened a veto, which Democrats and Progressives in the general assembly could collectively override.
“If the charge of the committee is already accomplished, what’s the purpose of the meeting?” selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter asked. “A meeting should have a purpose. And if you don’t have a purpose other than people who have a like-minded interest to get together, that’s what a coffee shop is for; it’s not an official public meeting.”
Carpenter added S.113 “goes beyond what we thought we might want to add to our own ordinance” and that he didn’t believe the public — at the time the town meeting resolution passed — wanted town officials to expand the local ban beyond single-use plastic bags.
Selectman Victor Nuovo, chairman of the ad hoc plastics committee, agreed. He noted the selectboard would have to change the panel’s charge if it were to take on other tasks.
“This committee was charged to do something,” Novo said. “I’m asking the selectboard that since the committee cannot do what it’s been tasked to do, whether it wants to give it another charge or do something different.”
Other selectboard members said the ad hoc panel should still meet to begin planning local promotional efforts for S.113.
“I don’t see what the harm would be in the committee meeting, other than their time, and it’s all people who volunteered their time to do this,” said Selectwoman Lindsey Fuentes-George. “On the very slim chance (S.113) doesn’t pass, then they’re already getting going. If nothing else, we have a committed group of people who have reviewed the law carefully, understand it and are ready to communicate that in an official capacity to the rest of the town… I don’t understand why we’re trying to stop them from meeting or delay them meeting, other than it’s people’s time.”
Selectwoman Heather Seeley also supported a convening of the committee.
“I would encourage the members of the committee to meet privately, on their own time, and decide — given the current situation — whether they’d like to continue on the committee and what they think their charge might be,” she said. “And then we’ll wait and see in three weeks or so what happens.”
Ultimately, the board accepted Carpenter’s suggestion that the committee’s activities be suspended for three weeks to get a better sense of S.113’s fate. In the meantime, he urged committee members to contact Nuovo to indicate whether “they’re still interested in serving on the committee if their charge is changed to one of functional outreach and education.”
“We have an obligation to either say, ‘We’ve accomplished what we wanted,’ or to charge that committee with education on a thoughtful process, or it can help our businesses institute the bans in a productive way that makes us compliant quicker and allow them to contain their costs and remain competitive,” Carpenter said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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