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Selectboard vexed over how to enact bag ban

Voters approved a nonbinding measure to prohibit single-use plastic bags at Annual Representative Town Meeting

BRATTLEBORO—As town officials figure out how to honor the Town Meeting nonbinding referendum on eliminating single-use plastic bags in town, Selectboard Chair Kate O’Connor offered reassurance: Nobody going to the grocery store tomorrow will be denied a shopping bag.

To enact any changes regarding which types of shopping bags stores can give to customers within city limits, the Selectboard has to pass an ordinance. And that takes time and a specific process, with many opportunities for public comment.

At the June 20 regular Selectboard meeting, Assistant Town Manager Patrick Moreland explained — with guidance from Town Manager Executive Secretary Jan Anderson — how to pass an ordinance.

The proposed bill gets a first reading at a Selectboard meeting, then there’s a second reading at a subsequent Board meeting, then the Board holds at least one public hearing. Then, the Selectboard decides whether to take action.

If they pass the ordinance, it goes into effect 60 days later, with publication in the newspaper within that time, notifying the public of the change.

Moreland told Board members municipal staff has no specific recommendations on whether to ban retailers from offering shoppers single-use plastic bags at the point of sale. Instead, he said, they seek “guidance on the policy decision which may lead to a future ordinance.”

Legal research

At the meeting, Moreland shared with Board members the research he and other municipal staff, including Town Attorney Bob Fisher, conducted on the topic.

Moreland said they investigated how many others across the world are dealing with this, from small towns to big cities and entire nations, and the effect the laws have had on behavior.

Fisher read articles in law journals to learn about possible legal pitfalls from passing a bag-ban ordinance, Moreland said.

What they learned, Moreland said, was that there are “generally three types of ordinance.”

One is a fee-only approach, which directs retailers to charge consumers for plastic bags. It’s not an outright ban, Moreland said, but it promotes re-use and allows the consumer to choose: Bring your own, or buy a new bag.

The program originated in Ireland, Moreland said, and reduced plastic bag use by 90 percent.

The total ban, which began in San Francisco, prohibits thinner plastic bags. But some places, like Austin, Texas, found unintended consequences to the ban, and they didn’t like them, Moreland said.

Some chain retailers simply offered thicker plastic bags to get around the thin-bag ban. As a result, according to a study Moreland mentioned, “the volume [of plastic] released into the environment may actually increase.”

But, Moreland said, a ban “addresses the issue head-on.” Although it may leave the town open to legal challenges, Moreland said that Fisher said he is “confident it’s a reasonable choice for the town to consider.”

The town has the authority to pass an ordinance banning single-use plastic bags because “the town can regulate solid waste,” Moreland said.

The third option Moreland characterized as a “hybrid” approach. It bans thin bags, and directs retailers to charge a fee for “any acceptable alternative bag,” such as paper or compostable plastic, and the sales receipt must separately list the bag fee to remind the consumer.

The retailer, Moreland said, keeps the bag fee.

Outright ban?

The general — although not complete — consensus of the Selectboard was for Moreland and Town Manager Peter B. Elwell to draft an ordinance of an outright ban on the distribution of thin-gauge single-use plastic bags at the point-of-sale.

O’Connor said it’s crucial for town officials to “let people know” through hearings and education, including consumers and retailers. “If you do it too fast, everyone’s going to get mad at you,” she said.

Selectboard member John Allen expressed his surprise that more retailers weren’t at the meeting to comment.

Resident Tim Maciel, who helped organize the petition to ban plastic bags, said he and other organizers spoke with store managers at Hannaford’s, Sam’s, and Price Chopper.

“To our surprise, they were cool with the whole process,” said Maciel. “I think the business community is comfortable with this.”

Allen said he would be more comfortable if a store manager was there at the meeting to say that.

Maciel pointed out the managers of most regional or national chain stores have already dealt with the ban, “and they do whatever the corporate office says.”

Selectboard member Brandi Starr reminded her colleagues about the effect of this ban on low-income residents, and mentioned that local activist Shela Linton had brought this up at an earlier meeting.

“The poor community gets a lot of reusable bags” from different social service providers, said resident Dale Joy. “They have them and they use them more than you think.”

Resident Franz Reichsman said he welcomed the ban as a form of social control — especially on himself. He said he always brings bags with him to the store. But then he leaves them in the car and has to pack his groceries in a plastic bag.

“I should be punished,” Reichsman said, and suggested his penance should be to go back to his car and get his bags.

Reichsman pointed out that a number of Western Massachusetts communities have already enacted bans. He gave Northampton as an example. “You don’t get a bag,” he said. “Okay, I don’t get a bag. It doesn’t make me not go to Northampton.”

O’Connor said this issue reminded her of the pay-as-you-throw trash bag issue. “Everybody was predicting armageddon in this town when we did pay-as-you-throw,” she said, then added, “people are figuring it out.”

“We all survived,” O’Connor said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #414 (Wednesday, June 28, 2017). This story appeared on page 0.

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