The Future is Not Plastic in Greenwich. Plastic Bag Ban with Zero Fee Wins in RTM Vote

Monday night’s RTM meeting was jam packed. Item #22 on the call was a proposed Reusable Checkout Bag Ordinance, a.k.a. “the plastic bag ban.”

As RTM members and townspeople arrived at Central Middle School for the meeting, they were greeted by dozens of students, many from the Greenwich High School’s Roots  & Shoots Club, bearing handmade signs with slogans including, “Ban the Bag,” “Be Fantastic and Don’t Use Plastic,” and “The Future Is Not Plastic,” a reference to advice given Dustin Hoffman’s character Benjamin in the 1967 film The Graduate.

The plastic bag ban would, by the end of the night be passed, but with modifications. Instead of a 23¢ fee for a paper bag in case someone forgets to bring their own bag, a ban with zero fee for a paper bag was approved. The vote on the ordinance, as amended, was 141-54 with 2 abstentions.

The ordinance will become effective six months after its approval by the RTM to allow business establishments time to work through their existing inventory of single use plastic checkout bags and convert to alternative bag materials that comply with the ordinance.

The item had been referred to three committees – Land Use, Public Works and Legislative & Rules.

Doug Wells, chair of the Legislative & Rules committee, said that when his committee met last week, one member had concerns for residents who live paycheck-to-paycheck. He said representatives from BYOGreenwich, a group of volunteers who for 12 months researched and proposed the ordinance with a 23¢ fee for a paper bag, and indicated they were willing to consider a fee closer to 10¢.

Wells offered a redlined a version of the ordinance to reflect that adjustment from 23¢ to 10¢. He said a 10¢ fee would incentivize shoppers to bring their own reusable bags, and that the RCB Ordinance was modeled on a California ordinance, which was appealed but ultimately upheld. Also, he said that nearby, New Castle, NY recently took up a similar ordinance with a 10¢ fee for a paper bag.

Wells said representatives from a group called the Fiscal Femmes had also attended his committee’s meeting last week.

“We heard from Jessica DelGuercio and Laura Gladstone who say a 23¢ charge would be the highest in the US and that the town already does well in recycling and does not need this ban,” and that adding that the Fiscal Femmes were worried that not only would families wind up spending huge sums on bags each year, but that the ban would drive out more businesses from Greenwich Ave.

Wells said the Fiscal Femmes had offered their own ordinance which would feature a 5¢ fee per paper bag paid for by individual retailers.

Wells noted that town attorney Wayne Fox had advised that the ordinance, including a fee, was indeed in legal order as long as long as the fee was close to the cost to the retailer pays, and that paying a fee is not in fact a “tax.”

Peter Berg said that when his Land Use committee took up the issue last week, Karen DeWahl, a former RTM member who is part of BYOGreenwich, and her associates explained that plastic pollution is a recognized global crisis and that neighboring towns of Rye, NY and Westport have already enacted ordinances.

“They said it would take months for residents to get used to it, but that it’s worth it and is consistent with the 2009 POCD, which calls for sustainability,” Berg said, adding, “Plastic bags to not do well with our recycling machinery and plastic bags are no longer allowed in the single stream recycling.”

Berg said the Fiscal Femmes had also attended his committee’s meeting and characterized a ban with a fee for a paper bag as a regressive tax on low income residents.

Berg said the Fiscal Femmes had argued that Greenwich is already “a great recycler with the cleanest water.”

Susan Fahey said that at the recent District 11 meeting, members acknowledged that a paper bag has a greater carbon footprint due to its weight, but that plastic bags have an even greater footprint overall because they take so long to disintegrate.

“We don’t think anyone should pay 10¢ on any bag,” she said, noting that only 3 of 17 members at her district meeting said they return their cans for the 5¢ deposit.

Dean Goss of District 1 said his members proposed a three year sunset provision to the ordinance.

By the end of the night the sunset provision was approved in a vote of 113 –86 – 32.

There was much discussion about the pros and cons of a 10¢ fee versus zero fee, which was the model adopted by Westport in 2008.

“Ban the plastic, and ban the fee,” said Tom Agresta from district 12.

“Why should we put a burden on anybody?” he asked. “Let’s do it like Westport with zero fee. Westport should not be ahead of us. We should have been the one to come up with this idea.”

Greenwich High School’s Roots & Shoots Club leader René Jameson spoke in favor of the ban.

“The continuous use of ‘only one plastic bag doesn’t matter’ may not seem significant, but the continuous use of ‘only one bag’ adds up,” Jameson said. “And in a  town of around 60,000 people, Greenwich is using millions of plastic bags each year. The RCBO will have a tangible impact. I urge you to pass this ordinance, if not for your own health and for the animals and our local ecosystems, then for my generation’s sake. We don’t want to inherit this environmentally damaged world.”

“Plastic pollutes oceans, kills wildlife, enters our food system and is consumed by us. It also produces toxic ash when incinerated and costs a lot to clean up. These are only some of its ill effects,” said Benjamin Cooper, an 8th grader at Central Middle School who urged the RTM to pass the plastic bag ban with a fee. “Because it takes 400 to 600 years to degrade, plastic does not go away quickly, which results in a lot of plastic in oceans and landfills.” Like René Jameson, Benjamin received a huge round of applause.

Scott Mitchell, who owns Richards on Greenwich Avenue in Greenwich, and Mitchells in Westport, said it’s best to “reward or punish.”

Mr. Mitchell warned that unless there is a fee, there will be no change in behavior.  “An 8th grade kid said it 20 minutes ago. It’s not rocket science. These plastic bags are terrible. …Bring your own and you win. …In terms of lowering it to zero, there will be no change. Westport is dying for us to make this change so that they can follow suit.”

Molly Saleeby, who traveled to Westport and talked to store managers, said she was against a fee. She said store managers at Stop & Shop, Balducci’s and Trader Joe’s told her it’s not necessary to charge a fee to change behavior.

Anthony Lopez from District 1 said he’d spoken to residents who may not be able to afford to pay a fee for bags, and that he’d received offers of significant donations of reusable bags.

David DeWahl said that at Whole Foods, it’s possible to purchase a reusable bag for a dollar and use it for years. “If we ask retailers to suck up the costs of paper bags, who do you think is actually going to pay for that bag? The customer. You’re much better off charging a fee.”

Laura Gladstone of the Fiscal Femmes said lower income residents would be harmed by even a 10¢ fee.

“The ten cents is purely punitive,” she said. “…If you want to penalize the rich, fine, but it’ll punish people who struggle.”

Mary Shaw Marks said the reason for the 10¢ fee was so that people wouldn’t just switch from plastic to paper. She said that Whole Foods double-bags with paper bags, which does not just use up trees.

“Massive amounts of water go into making paper. Massive amounts of gasoline trucking, cutting, shipping, and waste disposal,” she said. “We think paper is biodegradable, but it’s not (when it’s) in landfill. Only in the right circumstances. You need oxygen to biodegrade. In landfill it sits there.”

Kim Fiorello of the Fiscal Femmes objected to the words being bandied about: “Impose, Force, Change, and that people are lazy.”

“I would submit to you that people are busy, working very hard and have a lot on their minds,” she said.

Alexandra Bergstein described sustainability as an economic opportunity.

“It would grow our local economy,” she said of the RCB Ordinance. “It would be good for business. …Organics is the fastest growing sector of the food industry. The market rewards sustainability.”

Brooks Harris said the the ban was neither measured nor thoughtful.

“I reuse every plastic bag I get. I have never in my life littered,” he said. “A ban is coercive. There are better solutions. …This will create resentment and make people feel like you’re trying to micromanage their lives. You’ll get a better result if you do this cooperatively.”

Another member of the Fiscal Femes, Jessica DelGuercio said that people who her group surveyed had no idea the plastic bag ban was even on the RTM call and there had been no  public hearings.

“Let’s hear from the retailers,” DelGuercio said. “We have an issue on Greenwich Avenue. And people are leaving the state in droves,” she said, to a chorus of skeptical murmers.

Per the proposed ordinance, people who see violations will be instructed to go to the conservation commission who will monitor compliance, issue warnings and ultimately fine businesses $250 if they do not comply. After a warning and a $250 fine, the fine would increase to $500.

On the topic of a sunset provision, BYOGreenwich’s Jeanine Getz said she thought it was indeed a good idea, as it would provide an opportunity to reassess the ordinance.

116 – 84 – 1 motion carries to amend to zero fee

113 – 86 – 32 motion passes on three year sunset provision

141 – 54 – 2 Reusable Checkout Bag (RCB) passes as amended


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