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September 14, 2012, Darien Times

Plastic bag ban makes Darien RTM agenda

Darien Times/Doug Smith cartoon

The final step in banning plastic bags in Darien appears on the horizon now that the Representative Town Meeting has decided to discuss and perhaps vote on the ordinance at its Monday, Sept. 24 meeting.

RTM moderator and Rules Committee Chairman Karen Armour told The Darien Times that she thinks the ordinance is crafted well enough to warrant a vote.

“I think the [Town Government Structure & Administration] Committee have labored and come up with a clean proposal,” Armour told The Times. The Board of Selectman moved the ban proposal forward to the RTM last September, but the legislators have not had the ordinance on their agenda until now.

Sarah Seelye, chairman of the TGS&A Committee, said the rule was copied from a similar ban in Westport, with only some minor changes. Westport’s Conservation Department enforces its ban, and in Darien it would be the Environmental Protection Commission. The Health Department was suggested to enforce the ban here, but health officials expressed concern that it was out of their purview.

Enforcement would still depend on people informing the town that stores were still using plastic bags, as is the case in Wesport. Alicia Mozian, Wesport’s conservation director, told The Times that she was concerned at first if her department would be able to handle enforcing the rule, but as time has passed, only a handful of complaints have been logged since the ban went into effect in September of 2008.

“There were a couple of instances where we had to work with some businesses,” Mozian said. “One had just placed a big order of new bags; a retail dress shop had just placed an order with their logo on it and everything. We worked with them. We didn’t want to penalize them economically, so we gave them a little longer to comply.”

Mozian added that she thinks it also jumpstarted some of the corporate stores to speed up their design of non-plastic bags. “It felt that way,” she said. Westport was the first town on the East Coast to ban plastic bags after San Francisco broke the mold for the country back in 2007. Australia, China and India have also banned plastic bags and other countries are looking into similar rules.

This past July, Mamaroneck, N.Y., passed a ban on plastic bags, becoming the second Long Island Sound Community in Westchester County to impose a ban. Last year, the New York locales of East Hampton, Southhampton, and Rye also imposed a ban. Darien would be the second Connecticut town to outlaw the bags, if the RTM approves it later this month.

Businesses would have from six to nine months to rid their inventory of plastic bags before the ordinance would kick in. If a business was not in compliance after the ban went into effect, the town would verbally warn the shop and give them time to comply. If they continued to remain out of compliance, they could be fined up to $150. The last time Mozian responded to a complaint of a store using plastics, it turned out the store was in compliance. This was six or nine months ago, she said.

Some plastic bags would remain available, such as plastic bags that cover delivered newspapers, dry cleaning bags and produce bags from the grocery store.

Mozian said she didn’t think any businesses were hurt by the ban, and from what she could recall, few businesses complained that the ban would hurt their bottom line before the ordinance was passed. In Darien, however, the backlash has been a bit more severe.

While the Board of Selectmen passed the ban by a 4-1 vote, with Republican Jerry Nielsen the only naysayer, Republican selectmen Jayme Stevenson and Dave Campbell echoed Nielsen’s concerns that the ban could unnecessarily impose additional costs on businesses at a time when the local economy was still fledgling from the recession.

Darien environmental group Choose to Reuse spearheaded the ordinance, which became a public topic when they proposed the town-wide ban in February of 2011. After eight years of previous campaigning for greener pastures, the group thought the ban, combined with education on reusable bags, would be the way to go. A voluntary ban on plastics was explored but determined it would not go far enough, the group has said.

Greg Palmer, the fourth generation owner of Palmer’s Market, agreed in principal with Choose to Reuse, but said the ordinance would place an unfair burden onto stores such as his that make tiny profit margins.

“We would have to make cuts to giving back to the community, something we’ve already had to do,” Palmer said at a Board of Selectmen meeting in August 2011.

Palmer’s sells reusable bags for 20¢ below cost, he said, and also offers a 5¢ savings per reusable bag at checkout. They also offer free recycling at a small cost to the store. These efforts have cost Palmer $80,000 over the last four years, he said, and banning plastic bags outright would cost his store up to $25,000 a year because of the cost of paper bags.

“As an independent, single-store operator, this would come right off our bottom line,” Palmer said. “We can’t spread it across stores” like the larger grocery store chains, such as Stop & Shop.

Nina Miller, RTM District 2 representative and a founding member of Choose to Reuse, told the Environmental Protection Commission this past August that there have been some misconceptions about the ban she would like to clear up.

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

Suzanne England owns Beadz Boutique on the Post Road and supports the ordinance. Even though paper bags are considerably more expensive, England is not concerned that ridding her store of plastic bags would impact her business.

“We have to be concerned about our children’s children,” England said, adding that many of her customers wear their jewelry after purchasing, eliminating the need for a bag.

“Most bags we have are already paper.”

England estimates that 15% to 25% of her customers don’t want a bag after buying an item.

Manufacturers of plastic bags could also be affected if more towns decide to ban certain plastics.

Mark McClure is vice president of operations at International Plastics in Greenville, S.C., and told The Times last year that he understands the intent behind bans, but it could be misleading.

“It has good intent, where do you stop?” McClure said. “They’re not outlawing Ziplock bags or other plastics. There’s so much more contaminant in the landfill, a bag is the least of our worries.”

Trashed plastic bags from Darien end up incinerated at the Wheelabrator facility in Bridgeport. Many residents have expressed concern that they reuse the plastic bags to line small waste bins and to pick up pet waste, and the ban would force them to change this habit, which goes against the spirit of the ‘choose to reuse’ concept.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimated that only 5.2% of plastic bags are recycled. The EPA also estimated that Americans throw away roughly 100 billion plastic bags each year, which is about 333 bags per person.

Plastic bags are composed of polyethylene, a material synthesized from natural gas and crude oil. Some additives help plastics degrade within six months, but most plastics take hundreds of years to decompose and never return to an organic state.

The state’s General Assembly tabled a bill in 2011 that would have imposed a 5¢ tax on each plastic bag used by a consumer. This bill would have also prevented towns from banning these bags outright.

Choose to Reuse has circulated petitions throughout the community and at RTM meetings supporting the ordinance. If the measure fails the RTM, proponents will not have an opportunity to overturn the decision via referendum, according to Wayne Fox, town counsel.

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