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Little agreement on proposed plastic bag tax

BRATTLEBORO—According to Rep. Sarah Edwards, P/D-Brattleboro, Vermonters carry out an estimated 180 million plastic bags each year from retail stores.

She believes that requiring a 10-cent fee on each disposable plastic carryout bag taken by a customer at time of purchase would cut down on the number of bags that ultimately up in landfills.

Brad Borofsky of Sam’s Outdoor Outfitters disagrees, saying that the 10-cent fee would hurt already struggling Vermont retailers.

At a special meeting of the Windham Solid Waste Management District’s Planning/Operations Committee on Monday, Edwards and Borofsky hashed out the pros and cons of taxing disposable plastic bags.

Sponsored by Edwards and fellow House members Johannah Leddy Donovan, D-Burlington, and Dave Sharpe, D-Bristol, Bill H.145 seeks to reduce plastic bag use by levying a fee. The bill, which is in the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, does not cover smaller plastic bags or produce bags in grocery stores.

Edwards said that yearly visits from schoolchildren and others who advocate banning the bags has led to multiple plastic bag bills. She estimated that three had been written since 2007.

Plastic carry bags pose a number of problems to the environment, said Edwards. Reducing the use of these bags would cut the use of oil, which goes into producing them. Buried plastic bags block the flow of water and oxygen in the soil. Burning bags release toxins. The bags can also kill wildlife and choke drainage systems.

On the plus side, she said, plastic bags are handy, don’t leak, and are convenient for consumers.

Other countries already charge for plastic bags, said Edwards. In Ireland, use of plastic bags dropped 94 percent in one year after the country slapped on a 25-cent-per-bag fee.

According to Edwards, San Francisco banned plastic bags in 2007, and Washington, D.C., began charging 5 cents per bag in 2009. China, Australia, and France have also banned plastic bags.

Members of the Vermont Grocers Association have told Edwards it’s “all or nothing.” If plastic bags go, than they want paper bags gone, too, because they cost more to ship and take up more storage space.

Tasha Wallis, executive director of the Vermont Retail Association, told the Associated Press in February that “no taxes or bans are needed, because the industry is already taking steps to reduce the use of disposable bags,” including discounts to customers who bring reusable bags.

Borofsky said his store in Brattleboro loses business to his Keene store because of the lack of sales tax in New Hampshire. Approximately 85 percent of his customers buy their kayaks in Keene, he said.

“Pilfering is a problem,” said Borofsky citing the “five-finger discount” as a strike against customers carrying in their own, often opaque, reusable bags.

Borofsky also said that he didn’t want customers limited to what they could buy, based on the size of the reusable bags they brought into the store.

Plastic biodegradable disposable bags “are the answer,” said Borofsky. But Edwards said that many biodegradable bags require sunlight to break down, which they don’t get in landfills.

Dora Bouboulis, who serves as an alternate on the WSWMD committee and is a Brattleboro Selectboard member, suggested compostable bags over biodegradable ones.

Many recycled plastic bags are shipped overseas to China, which takes resources too, said Bouboulis, adding that “[recycling bags] doesn’t make sense unless you do something with them locally.”

Borofsky and Edwards said they would research compostable bags.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #94 (Wednesday, March 30, 2011).

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