hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues August 2018


Pushing back against plastic

Citizen activists pursue local, state curbs on bags, bottles, straws


Contributing writer


Environmental advocates around the region are increasing their efforts to reduce plastic waste by calling for bans on certain single-use plastics – shopping bags and water bottles – and some are asking restaurants and their patrons to cut back on using plastic straws.

In Manchester, the local environmental group Earth Matters is pushing the town to enact a ban on single-use plastic shopping bags, following the lead of Brattleboro and several towns in the Berkshires.

And in the Glens Falls area of New York, the Warren County Board of Supervisors is considering legislation that would outlaw thin-film plastic bags like those given out at supermarkets.

Both Manchester and Warren County are home to numerous outlet stores and depend on tourists who are drawn by the region’s natural beauty.

Anne Dolivo, who founded Earth Matters as a project of MoveOn Manchester, said her group is concerned with single-use plastic bags, water bottles and disposable plastic straws, among other issues. After coordinating efforts to have six towns in the area pass resolutions addressing climate change at their town meetings in March, the group took on plastic bags as its next project.

Earth Matters is drafting a proposed local law to ban single-use shopping bags, and its members have been talking with local retailers about alternatives to the bags.

The Manchester group is following the example set by Brattleboro, where a ban on plastic bags took effect July 1. That town’s law prohibits bags thinner than 2.25 mils. (One mil is 0.001 inch.) Exemptions include bags for bulk produce, meat, bread, newspapers and dry cleaning.

“Brattleboro has already done a lot of the work and has advised us,” Dolivo said.
As models for a bag ban in Manchester, the group has studied Brattleboro’s law as well as similar laws adopted by some Massachusetts towns, she said.

Plastic bags are handy. They’re light, waterproof, inexpensive, and can be sturdier than other options. The Earth Policy Institute, a national nonprofit group, estimates that nearly 1 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year. The United States averages 531 bags per person per year, according to Earth Matters.

But the bags are made of polyethylene, which doesn’t biodegrade. Although they are theoretically recyclable, the flimsy plastic tends to clog recycling equipment, so fewer than 5 percent actually wind up being recycled, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Some bags are incinerated with other trash. Others go to landfills, where they may blow away before they’re buried. Many are simply discarded. They may float down rivers and go out to sea. They can entrap and strangle birds, fish, and animals that mistake them for prey or nesting materials.

Left exposed to the elements, the plastic crumbles over time into tiny particles, which may be ingested by organisms. It also accumulates in the soil, where it leaches toxic chemicals.
“You’re eating that plastic,” Dolivo said.


Bag ban: Manchester’s first step?
Some countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Central America have taken steps to discourage plastic bags, either by prohibition or by imposing per-bag fees. Seattle was the first U.S. city to ban plastic bags, in 2010, and California and Hawaii have statewide prohibitions.

Localities in 19 other states and the District of Columbia regulate them in some way -- including the Berkshire County towns of Adams, Great Barrington, Lee, Lenox and Williamstown, which all have banned them, as have several towns on Long Island and in the lower Hudson Valley.
Pittsfield has been debating a bag ban for more than two years, and statewide legislation has been proposed in Massachusetts.

In Manchester, Earth Matters has been promoting a local ban at street fairs and other events, Dolivo said. The group has heard little if any opposition.

“I think a lot of people are already on board with this,” she said. “But we need to spread the word.”

The group learned from activists and officials in Brattleboro that large chain stores are generally receptive, in part because they may do business in other communities that already bar single-use bags. Eventually, Earth Matters would like to set up a cloth bag exchange program similar to Brattleboro’s, Dolivo said.

Although stores give plastic bags out, they aren’t free. U.S. retailers spend about $4 billion annually on plastic bags at an average cost of 4 cents each, Earth Matters says. It’s in retailers’ financial interest to encourage their customers to buy reusable bags and bring them every time.
Earth Matters has discussed its draft proposal with the town’s Conservation Commission and will have another town’s lawyer review it before the group presents it to the Manchester Selectboard, Dolivo said.

“It will probably take a year or so to get a ban in place -- we’re hoping by July 1, 2019,” she said.

Warren County ban advances

In Warren County, N.Y., Glens Falls 3rd Ward Supervisor Claudia Braymer drew up the plastic bag legislation that was recently approved by the Legislative and Rules Committee of the county Board of Supervisors. The proposal, which now goes to the full board for review, is similar to one that was considered 18 months ago but withdrawn when it seemed the state might pass its own law banning the bags.

Braymer said the proposal is “part of worldwide efforts to reduce plastic waste.
“We’re just doing our part in Warren County,” she explained. “So much here is based on the beauty of our natural environment.”

In addition to unsightly litter, discarded bags cause problems with storm drains, and fumes from bags that are incinerated aren’t “good for the environment,” Braymer said.

Thin-film bags also can be so fragile that they break before people even leave the store, so there is a consumer protection aspect to ending their use, she said.

Committee members discussed imposing fees on single-use bags, but Braymer said they concluded that “people in this area don’t support that sort of government involvement.” Instead, the supervisors decided on simply prohibiting plastic bags thinner than 2.25 mils at any retail establishment.

“The main consensus is that single-use plastic bags are bad enough so we should ban them everywhere,” Braymer said.

Stores can choose for themselves what other sorts of bags to offer and whether they want to charge for them, she said.

Some citizens have questioned how they’ll pick up after their dogs or line their trash cans without the plastic shopping bags, Braymer said. She suggested using plastic bags that aren’t affected by the ban, such as bread bags for the dog or commercially produced trash can liners.

The draft law now goes before the full Board of Supervisors, which may vote to hold a public hearing on it. The board may request revisions based on public comments, which would send the bill to another public hearing, Braymer said.

“It’s still a ways away from passing, if ever,” she said.

But the proposal “has generated a lot of good discussion and awareness already,” Braymer said.
“It will remind people to use reusable bags,” she said. “There’s no reason you can’t take them to a retail store.”


Discouraging plastic straws
Paul Burns, executive director of Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said his organization supports a statewide ban or fee on single-use bags. He praised the Manchester citizens who are pursuing the idea at the local level.

Burns said he believes Middlebury and Montpelier also are considering local regulations to curb use of plastic bags.

In June, VPIRG, a statewide consumer and environmental advocacy group, pushed to address another part of the plastic waste stream when it launched its “Straws Upon Request” campaign. The goal is to enlist at least 100 Vermont food service businesses to pledge not to give out straws unless customers request them.

“It’s a voluntary measure,” Burns said. “But as support builds, it may lead to local ordinances or state legislation.”

The advocacy group For a Strawless Ocean estimates that the United States alone goes through nearly 500 million plastic straws daily. Straws may be made of any of several plastics.

As with plastic bags, the light weight and small size of straws make them difficult to collect and recycle. Researchers say they make up a greater proportion of marine trash than their numbers would suggest. Seattle banned plastic straws in restaurants as of June.

Bistro Henry in Manchester is the only restaurant in Bennington County to sign on so far to the VPIRG campaign.

“We took the pledge because it was available to us, and it’s an important matter,” said Henry Bronson, the restaurant’s owner.

Rather than have the staff give out straws automatically with drinks, “people ask if they want a straw,” Bronson said. “We give them a straw.”

Bronson pointed out that because of health regulations, each straw has to be individually wrapped, which adds to the trash load.

Compared with a big fast-food chain like McDonald’s, “my impact is a joke,” he said. “But whatever impact we can make, that’s how this happens.”

Straws can be made of a number of substances, including disposable paper and reusable steel, glass and bamboo. Bronson said he has a source for compostable straws.
“Vermont vendors are progressive,” he said.


New vote on bottle ban
Environmental advocates also have taken aim lately at single-use plastic water bottles. Made of PETE (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic, the bottles are recyclable, but the EPA says that because the market for recycled PETE is small, their recycling rate is only about 30 percent. Many go to landfills or wind up as litter on land and sea.

Bottle deposit laws substantially decrease the number of bottles that wind up as litter. But single-serving bottled water didn’t become popular until long after New York, Massachusetts and Vermont had passed their bottle deposit bills, so it wasn’t included. New York added water bottles to its deposit law in 2009; Massachusetts and Vermont have not, and Bay State voters defeated a 2014 ballot initiative that would have added water bottles to the state’s deposit law.
In May, voters at town meeting made Great Barrington, Mass., one of four communities nationwide to ban the sale of single-serving plastic water bottles. But the ban, scheduled to take effect next year, faces a possible repeal on Aug. 6 after opponents obtained enough petition signatures to force a second vote on the issue.

In Vermont, VPIRG supports raising the state’s required bottle deposit from 5 cents to 10 cents and expanding it to cover water and possibly other beverages, Burns said.

Adding to environmentalists’ concerns, China recently stopped accepting plastic waste from other countries for recycling. China previously was the world’s biggest importer of recyclable plastic, mostly from countries other than the United States.

“It’s up to America to start our own recycling facilities,” Dolivo said.
Many of the roles played by plastic in daily life were once filled by other materials, especially materials that could be reused repeatedly.

Reducing the flow of plastic waste “is up to the individual,” Dolivo said. “They’ve got to change their mindset.”

When plastics aren’t available, “people make lifestyle changes to accommodate,” such as turning to reusable bags, Burns said.

Plastics are made from petroleum, a substance that is environmentally damaging to extract, refine, and dispose of.

“A percentage of oil goes into these products that may last for 500 years in the environment,” Burns said. “We can’t afford to create products like that.”