Winchester again considers removing the plastic bag option

Three years ago, Winchester residents Sue Dobler and Mary Fuller led a charge to make the environment (at least in Winchester) greener by sponsoring a warrant article for Fall Town Meeting that would ban plastic bags at checkout. While the motion ultimately failed, the vote was close enough to give Dobler, Fuller and the rest of their Shop Local Bring Your Own Bag team (Don Daniels, Elisa Jazan, Fritzie Nace, Carolyn Starrett, George Wood, Ingrid Geis, Susan McPhee, Ken Pruitt, and Jen Swift) hope that it could pass someday.

Today could be that day. The team submitted another warrant article, this time for Spring Town Meeting on Monday, April 30 that once again asks the town to “ban the bag.” Why are they so optimistic this time will be different? What’s changed in the past three years?

Number one, more communities have adopted similar measures. 50 cities and towns have made the switch in the past two years including Arlington, Boston, Lexington, Melrose, Reading, and Wakefield. Number two, Winchester no longer recycles plastic. According to the Shop Local team, up to seven million plastic bags enter Winchester’s waste stream every year and the town has to pay to dispose of them. They’re also a nuisance for DPW and made of non-renewable materials.

But are plastic bags really that terrible? According to data from the Ocean Conservancy’s annual International Coastal Cleanups, plastic bags are consistently in the top 10 pieces of trash collected on beaches around the world.

If that’s not enough, the extremely slow decomposition rate causes the bags to float in the ocean for untold years, thereby causing harm to marine animals such as fish, sea turtles, etc. when they mistake them for food.

Also, when plastics break down, they don't biodegrade; they photodegrade. This means the materials break down to smaller fragments which readily soak up toxins. They then contaminate soil, waterways, and animals upon digestion (Earth911).

What are the alternatives to plastic? The most obvious is paper, though that’s only slightly better. Paper products cost more money, force the cutting of many trees and use chemicals to make the products. Therefore, the best solution is for shoppers to bring in their own bags. Reusable shopping bags are not only convenient, but they can also be stylish. Starrett, a member of the Shop Local team, showed off a few different types of reusable bags in different colors and styles (one looked like a fisherman’s net).

The convenience comes from a user’s ability to carry them around. Starrett had several in her purse. Most women don’t carry plastic or paper bags in their purse. These reusable bags are perfect not just for shopping at grocery stores, but for perusing a farmers market or just stopping by a vendor on the street (or in the mall) and picking up a couple of small items.

Outside of the simple ease that a reusable bag provides, it also reinforces Winchester’s commitment to environmental safety. The town approved a policy in 2009 that states:

“It is the Board of Selectmen’s policy, on behalf of current and future generations of Winchester residents, to improve our quality of life by moving strategically towards sustainability so that we can:

• Capture new opportunities,

• Reduce costs and

• Dramatically improve our environment.”

Removing plastic bags from the environment (and even paper, to some extent) would reduce the amount of trash in the streets and in the waterways (again, plastic does not decompose).

What will the proposed warrant article do? If passed, the article would add a bylaw to eliminate disposable, plastic checkout bags. It also includes provisions depending on the size of the store. For instance, any business with a square footage greater than 4,500 would be allowed a six-month transition, while a business with a square footage less than 4,500 would be allowed a year to make the transition. It would also accommodate any businesses that need extra time.

The team hopes that this will encourage consumers to use reusable bags and for businesses to promote reusable bags (while at the same time promoting their own business through a sticker on one side of the bag with the company’s logo; the other side would feature the Shop Local Bring Your Own Bag logo).

The team has spoken with 90 businesses in town, many of which don’t even use plastic. The ones that do said they could handle making the switch. In fact, the three biggest users of plastic will already have made the transition in other towns by July 1 of this year.

The team wants residents to know that “everyone wins when we reduce plastic bags and move to reusable.” It points out that consumers have sturdy, affordable bags that last for years. Businesses and towns can save costs. Finally, and probably most importantly, the environment benefits.

The team received the support of the Select Board recently when it voted 3-1-1 to support the article at Town Meeting. Select Board member David Errico voted against and new Select Board member Jaqueline Welch voted to abstain.

Errico said he “didn’t want to support something telling people what to do.”

Welch abstained feeling like she needed more information before she could support or reject the article. She did, however, question the need for it. She asked if the town needed this bylaw when the trend was already moving in the direction of less plastic (and shopping online). She also suggested that plastic bags may be needed for other reasons.

The rest of the board believed in the initiative with Chair Michael Bettencourt saying using plastic bags would be “an easy habit to change.”

Select Board member Mariano Goluboff called this problem “low-hanging fruit.”

While true that banning plastic bags won’t solve all of Winchester’s environmental problems, it could definitely start the ball rolling toward other options.

As Shop Local team member Geis pointed out, this bylaw would be a “momentum builder.”

She added that only 5 - 12 percent of plastic bags get recycled and only one store recycles them: Stop & Shop.

Back in 2015 when the team first attempted to pass this warrant article, they excluded some smaller businesses. Now, it’s all hands on deck as everyone would be subjected to the bylaw. It’s that exclusion that may have stopped the original bylaw from passing.

Shop Local team member Pruitt said that “some people were originally opposed to the idea that not all businesses were affected,” adding that he was told by people that’s the reason they voted it down.

This time, they not only have all businesses on board, they also have the backing of the Board of Health and DPW.

If it passes, Starrett said it would be a “statement about our town and that people want greener communities.”

This bylaw would not only help Winchester, but it would also benefit other neighboring communities. As the Shop Local team noted, “plastic moves downstream.” Therefore, communities south of Winchester would see less plastic bags floating down the river if the town passes this warrant article.

Three years ago, Doubler and Fuller talked about educating the public about recycling plastic and the idea that the market would or even could solve its own problem. They suggested that education could only do so much (and now that education would be irrelevant as the town no longer recycles plastic bags) and that market correction can’t handle externalities, i.e. something that affects a third-party not related to either of the first two parties, such as a person using a plastic bag, the bag then finding its way into the ocean, and a third party getting sick from eating fish that had been exposed to said plastic.

Today, the strategy is different. Education will focus on reusable bags and ways to get more people to use them. Starrett said they could provide stickers for grocery stores to remind people to bring their bags.

Ideally, if the bylaw passes, nothing will change. Pruitt said that a similar bylaw passed in Arlington and nothing changed.

“The average person doesn’t think about plastic and they won’t care,” he acknowledged.

The team knows that if the bylaw passes, shoppers will most likely just gravitate toward paper, but they’re hopeful that businesses will promote reusable bags. Considering that paper is more expensive than plastic, it would make sense for store owners to push the reusable bags hard so they don’t have to buy as much paper.

“Businesses want to minimize costs,” Pruitt said when asked if business owners would get on board with the reusable bag trend.

Over the next couple of weeks, the Shop Local team still has more outreach to do. They remember how spirited the debate was last time and they want to prepare themselves for more of the same.

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