Top 10 stories of 2012 — No. 6: Plastic bags stay, create awareness

This editorial cartoon appeared in a June issue of the Darien Times. (Darien Times/Doug Smith cartoon)

The idea of banning plastic bags started with noble intentions but turned into a political hot topic this year.

Darien’s Representative Town Meeting was responsible for deciding whether a measure to prevent businesses from using the plastic staple used for shopping. It was ultimately voted down 35-46. The issue originated from several members, environmental enthusiasts and also members of Choose to Reuse, who starting lobbying for a vote.

Both supporters and opponents of the proposed ban had many questions about its severity, who would enforce it, and what the effects would be on small businesses in town. The RTM delayed a vote with many members claiming they did not have enough information on the effect of plastic bag use even though the issue came up last year as well.

The Board of Selectmen had voted to move the ban to the RTM by a 4-1 vote, despite criticism from Selectmen Jayme Stevenson and Dave Campbell who believed that the ban would hurt Darien’s businesses. Selectman Jerry Nielsen was the only member to vote no. Stevenson explained that she voted yes so that the RTM would have a chance to discuss and vote on the measure. The RTM, however, could have discussed the bag ban without the selectmen’s approval, as per the town charter.

Before it passed to the RTM, the ordinance went up for a vote in the Town Government Structure & Administration Committee on Tuesday, Sept. 11. The ban came out of committee with more concrete details.

This ban was modeled on a similar one passed in Westport in 2008. Darien would have been the second Connecticut town to pass such a measure. The Darien Times spoke with Westport’s conservation director, Alicia Mozian, who said that they relied on residents to inform the town of plastic bag use, though they did not have many complaints four years later. In the cases where businesses had recently purchased the bags, they were given more time to comply, Mozian said.

Many business owners were not satisfied by the comparison. Greg Palmer of Palmer’s Market was one of the opponents claiming the ban would hurt his business by increasing costs.

Palmer calculated that buying only paper bags would cost $25,000 a year. He had already spent $80,000 over the past four years by offering customers reusable bags below cost.

The loudest voices in support for the ban included Nina Miller, District 2 RTM member, who was a founding member of Choose to Reuse. Miller, the group and other supporters worked hard to clear up misconceptions about the ban and their intentions.

“We’re not against paper or plastic,” Miller said. “We’re about reusable bags.”

The group created petitions and circulated information for RTM members and residents.

Critics argued that the environmental group, ironically, did not give residents a choice in how they might recycle plastic bags. Some people claimed they reused bags from the grocery store to pick up pet waste or line garbage bins at home.

Over a couple of months, Choose to Reuse set up a campaign to share their talking points. Their response to critics was that residents would find more appropriate items to replace their “recycled” bags.

The final vote on Wednesday, Sept. 24, came after several RTM members and residents spoke in favor and against the ban. The discussion continued into the night.

“We have a duty to preserve and protect and love this Earth. It’s not about politics or economics, but it’s about our world as we know it,” said Finley Whetmore, a freshman at Darien High School. She called the plastic bag ban a “responsible choice.”

David Kahn, chairman of the public works committee, reported on his visit to the municipal solid waste incinerator in Bridgeport where about 15,000 pounds of Darien’s plastic bags end up.

“They were very clear that the materials going into the incinerator really don’t impact the emission stream coming out of the plant,” Kahn said. “There are so many harmful things being burned that they have to worry about, plastic bags are the least of their worries.”

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that only a 5.2% of plastic bags are recycled. The chemical composition of grocery store bags includes polyethylene, which is made from natural gas and crude oil. The bags can degrade in six months, though many types of plastics take up to hundreds of years.

The heated discussion continued into the night as many residents brought up strong points and criticisms. Some claimed that the ban was not fair essentially because there are other types of plastic and waste with potential environmental harm.

Though the ban did not pass, The Darien Times reported that only 82 of 100 members voted that night. The ordinance can not be appealed, but there was a sense among residents and supporters that the town gained a perspective and some education through the process. Environmental advocates said they would continue to educate their neighbors about recycling and the environment.

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