By Tom Brown
Some 350 U.S. cities have enacted some sort of ban on the kind of single-use plastic bags you find at grocery stores and other retailers. Montpelier intends to add its name to the list if voters approve a charter change proposed on the November 6 ballot.
A “yes” vote on Article 4 would add an amendment to the city charter that gives the city council the authority to “regulate, license, or prohibit, within the boundaries of the City, point of sale distribution of non-reusable plastic bags, non-reusable plastic straws and similar plastic products that are not reusable, and to define what constitutes reusable in this context.”
If the charter change is passed and approved by the state legislature, as required by law, the council would begin to craft an ordinance that would achieve one of the goals it set at an April brainstorming session. The devil, of course, will be in the details.
Like those other 350 cities, including Brattleboro, the council will have several issues to hammer out if and when it sits down to create the ban, such as which bags to ban; whether to include the thin-film bulk food and produce bags; floral wraps; and the ubiquitous bags intended to pick up and dispose of dog waste.
“Any ordinance that we write is going to be surrounded in a robust public process,” Mayor Anne Watson said. “This is giving us the door to start having the conversation in the first place. We want to hear from people what works and what doesn’t work, and be able to craft this in a way that both helps the environment and is respectful to people’s needs.”
By now, most people are aware of the massive island of plastic floating in the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii. Recent studies show the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” to be about three times larger than previously believed. At 617,000 square miles it is now twice the size of Texas, according to “Scientific Reports,” which is published by the journal Nature. While that is the largest such concentration, there are plastic islands swirling in at least five oceanic gyres, or circulating currents, around the world.
It was video of that floating dump that convinced District 2 City Councilor Conor Casey to take up the cause and push for a ban on plastic bags in the capital city. He has been lobbying to reduce plastic waste for more than a decade, tracing back to his days as political director of the Vermont State Employees Association and later as executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party.
He sees the limited ban on single-use bags in Montpelier as the springboard to a larger discussion about regulating all forms of plastic pollution.
“I would say, eventually, I see everything being taken off,” he said. The question is “do we start with what we have or is it best to rip off the Band-Aid and do everything at once.” The council decided to take a more targeted approach and then “take the temperature of the town,” he said.
“We know that there’s an easy replacement for plastic bags,” said Mayor Watson, citing reusable canvas bags. “We want to be really careful about how we apply it [the charter change], and this will be the mechanism that allows us to move forward with any kind of ban.”
Americans use 100 billion plastic bags a year and producing those bags requires 12 million barrels of oil. Each family handles 1,500 bags a year and about 1 percent of that is recycled, according to Waste Management. Many of those bags, even those from landlocked Montpelier, make their way to the ocean. So what environmental difference will the city’s ban actually make?
“I think people will be proud that we’re setting an example for the rest of the state as the capital city,” Casey said. “We’re not going to change the world through Montpelier alone, but part of this is to be the example. Maybe we have reusable bags that brand the city of Montpelier so when people come here and visit they say, ‘What a cool town. They’re taking the lead on this type of thing.’ I hope we generate some excitement around this.”
Business Community Response
With downtown retailers facing constant pressure from online sellers and big box stores, an ordinance that changes the way consumers tote home their purchases might be seen as burdensome, but most of those contacted were generally supportive and said they would work with the council to craft the ordinance, should the charter change be approved.
The Hunger Mountain Co-op has long been at the forefront of promoting recycling and reuse and has never dispensed single-use plastic bags for groceries, although it does offer thin-film bags for produce and some bulk foods.
General Manager Kari Bradley said the grocery store constantly looks for new ways to keep its packaging out of the waste stream, but also has to keep an eye on customer costs. The co-op gives customers a 5-cent credit for bringing a reusable bag for their purchases. That money is then given to the Montpelier Food Pantry through the “bag-that-bag” program. The co-op issued more than 217,000 credits and donated $11,000 to the organization last year, Bradley said.
With China slated to reduce the amount of plastic waste it accepts from the U.S. next year, the need to eliminate all types of plastic is becoming more critical.
“In the future, we can expect changes in demand for glass, plastics, and other materials,” he wrote in a recent op-ed. “Our best bet is to reduce our use of new materials, stay informed about current standards, and recycle right.”
The good news is that industry is starting to adapt to the changing market for recyclables. The co-op recently moved to a non-plastic alternative for straws and has added wooden cutlery for prepared take-out meals.
“At first, it was hard to get the non-plastic version,” Bradley said. “But now suppliers are figuring out how to be able to supply those.”
Progress is also being made, he said, in the creation of truly compostable bags that break down into carbon and water elements without leaving bits of plastic behind.
“We should be considering how do we just avoid these single-use items altogether, whether it’s recycled or ending up in the landfill,” he said.
Sarah DeFelice, owner of Bailey Road on Main Street and president of the Montpelier Business Association, said the group has not taken a formal stance on the proposed bag and straw ban.
“I don’t use plastic bags in my store but we have members who do,” she said. “Each business is different, and I’m sure we will share any concerns with the council [as they write the ordinance],” she said.
Kate Tank-Day, manager of Guy’s Farm and Yard on Barre Street, said the change would not be a significant problem.
“We already offer paper, and we use recycled bags that customers bring in,” she said. “Our customers are already pretty conscientious about paper versus plastic. And we can get paper bags with our name on it just as easily.”
Up next? Energy Efficiency
The charter change amendment was much broader when the council first started work on it. Language did not target any particular source of pollution, such as bags or straws, but gave the council the authority to adopt regulations that would protect and promote environmental conservation, sustainability, energy efficiency, and more.
Through discussion councilors and Mayor Watson narrowed the ask to a ban on plastic bags and straws. The consensus was that the original plan was too ambitious and ran the risk of failure at the polls.
“The question was do we go with something broad and sweeping or do you go with something that has a higher likelihood of passing and gets out what we originally set out to do,” Watson said.
The council will likely work on language for another charter change proposal for Town Meeting Day in March, she said.
The mayor, who has made energy efficiency a top priority, said she would like to see the council, if given the authority, consider ways to encourage landlords to tighten up homes for renters who pay separately for heat.
“Burlington has an ordinance that any time you sell a multi-family building it must meet a certain energy performance standard,” she said. “I would love to have a similar ordinance here and it’s not clear whether we already have that power or would need to change our charter.”
The idea is to flip that dynamic because in many cases the landlord has little incentive to perform weatherization upgrades while the tenants pay heating costs.
“We have been trying incentives forever and it takes us just so far,” Watson said. “But there is a percentage of the population for whom that is just not interesting. Eventually we run out of carrots so we need to start to think about the ordinance process to point us in the right direction.”
Voting in the November 6 statewide election takes place from 7 am to 7 pm at City Hall. Early voting is also available.