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The Problem Of The Ubiquitous Plastic Bag

After more than two years, Westport is still the only town in Connecticut that has banned them outright.

A few weeks ago, 13 volunteers picking up refuse on a mile-long stretch of Connecticut beach hauled in 100 plastic bags in under two hours, and that was in the pouring rain. This is a typical story, familiar to anyone who wanders the shoreline.

Plastic bags seem to be everywhere: blowing into the water, where fish and lobster eat them, or blowing into the woods, where birds use their beaks to break them up for nests, or jammed into trash trucks to be incinerated.

But so far, efforts to cut back plastic bags remain local. The town of Westport banned plastic bags outright nearly three years ago but a proposed state bag fee died in the General Assembly’s Environment Committee this year. Banning campaigns have begun in a handful of other Fairfield County towns.

In most villages and towns, plastic bag initiatives are education campaigns, such as the Madison Energy Committee’s suggestion that people stop using plastic bags as one of many energy-saving moves. Many supermarkets collect them for recycling (to be made into things like plastic decking). Many markets pay customers for every reusable bag they use. The efforts are store by store, community by community.

Molly McKay, Mystic resident and member of the local Sierra Club, said she takes bags she collects to recycling bins at McQuade’s Marketplace and Stop & Shop. “They are packed full,” she said. “This is a very middle-class and upper-middle class area, so the response to recycling is very likely in a place like this.”

McKay wondered if there could be an incentive for  mom-and-pop stores to cut back on plastic bag use without it costing them money, because she has noticed that people tend not to take reuseable bags to those sorts of stores.

One step towards reducing the carbon footprint

The Madison Energy Committee’s advice for people to stop using bags, first used in a presentation a few years ago, was deliberately chosen from a long list of ideas, said Dean Plummer, a member of that committee.

 “One of the things people can do in their own lives is to stop using disposable items,” said Plummer, who noted that the committee’s emphasis is on reducing the town’s carbon footprint. He said they called out shopping bags because people tend to use them only once. “It wasn’t meant to be a statement that this was the most important thing to do to reduce your energy footprint, but that this was one thing to do. If people do one thing, they are likely to do another. Switching from plastic to reuseable has never been easier.”

You wouldn’t think so, considering how difficult it has been for the state to come up with a law everyone likes. The bill that died this session in the General Assembly’s Environment Committee called for charging people to use plastic bags but did not ban them.

Lobbying against that bill were some of the most ardent anti-plastic people—Westport residents, who haven’t used bags since 2008. Take state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, who testified before the Environment Committee back in February, “I’m proud to come from the sole Connecticut community that has taken the bold step to ban retail plastic bags outright. Since Westport’s ban had passed, we had hoped that other municipalities would follow our example.”

Don't punish, encourage

Steinberg said the state should not legislate a fine but instead encourage other municipal bans.

Echoing this was state Rep. Kim Fawcett, a Democrat representing Fairfield and Westport. Fawcett actually championed a statewide plastic-bag fee two years ago, but this year, she said she thought it would be better to go slowly on a statewide law so that towns would be free to be tougher if they wish.

But the Sierra Club testified for a fine, not a ban. Martin Mador, legislative chair of the Connecticut branch of the club, told the Environment Committee, “Give people the choice to do good things on their own. We feel the nickel charge is enough to get people to change their behavior, although the other half of the world thinks a nickel is not large enough to actually change behavior. We think it's an appropriate place to start, give people the choice with the plastic bag.”

Mador, who lives in Hamden, said that home rule has led to “doing things 169 ways in the state,” but that the club believes any state plastic-bag law ought to also allow towns like Westport the freedom to go further, to an outright ban.

It does seem clear that rules do cut bag use, whether people like it or not.

The Citizens’ Campaign for the Environment, an advocacy group that organized the volunteers who on April 23 collected those 100 bags on Long Wharf Beach in New Haven, believes that plastic bags ought to disappear from everyday life, not only by teaching people about their problems –like leaching chemicals into the ocean and the food chain – but by passing some kind of law limiting or banning them.

 “Our position is, education alone, without some type of progressive legislative action, a lot of times doesn’t produce the results we need,” said Louis W. Burch,  program coordinator for CFE in Connecticut.

(Editor's Note: This originally appeared on Stonington-Mystic Patch.)

Siobhan Crise May 17, 2011 at 11:04 AM
I've lived in towns and cities where a/ plastic bags are banned, b/ plastic bags cost a nominal charge (15c a time in Target anyone?) c/ supermarkets reward you for bringing resuable bags instead. To my mind option a/ is always going to be the best for bringing about a real change in habits. Congratulations to Westport for its bold step. (And to Dublin, Ireland for charging an effective tax for plastic bags back in 2002 - usage dropped 94% within weeks).
michelene spencer May 18, 2011 at 02:40 AM
Take a look at where those nice paper bags are made...that long boat ride can't be all that friendly to the environment. Oh and look where most of those lovely reusable bags are made. We think Westport is so green aware and yet we let the bags fly around and don't take home what we take to (or buy at) the beach.
Jonathan Steinberg May 18, 2011 at 03:57 PM
The primary reason that Representative Fawcett and I opposed the bill before the legislature this session was a single sentence provision which forbade towns from adopting a bag ban. They would be limited to charging a nominal fee for plastic bags, which falls short of our goal. Members of Westport's GVI traveled to Hartford that day to testify about Westport's experience and express the same reservations about the bill as proposed. We all remain hopeful that other communities will soon take the bold step of a total ban which would culminate ultimately in a state-wide ban. -- Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, State Representative, 136th District (Westport)

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