Could Wilton ban the use of plastic and styrofoam by businesses in town?
At last week’s special Board of Selectmen meeting, the BOS members heard a presentation from Wilton Go Green‘s (WGG) president Tammy Thornton proposing changes to town ordinances that would effectively do just that–eliminate plastic bags at checkouts, single use plastics and polystyrene.
The environmental group has been active in town on many fronts, raising awareness and promoting several efforts: a Skip the Straw campaign, visiting local businesses and restaurants to encourage the use of paper straws or giving straws to customers only on request; the BYO organization, related to the state checkout-bag ordinance, to encourage shoppers to bring their own reusable shopping bags; RecycleCT events to teach about recycling; education and outreach at the Wilton Farmer’s Market and Scarecrow Fest; the Zero Waste Faire; and collecting petition signatures from residents in support of banning single use plastic bags.
Ordinance 1: Single Use Plastic Bag Ban
Wilton Go Green is proposing that Wilton adopt an ordinance banning single use plastic bags and goes even further than the law passed by the state of Connecticut last year, which took effect Aug. 1, 2019. The state’s ordinance mandates phasing out plastic checkout bags less than 4 mil by 2021; WGG would like to eliminate single-use plastic bags immediately as of September 2020.
In addition, WGG would like Wilton’s ordinance to have stricter standards than the state has for acceptable plastic bags. The group proposes limiting the use of any plastic bag to those made from durable plastic at least 12 mils thick. Other forms of plastic that would be acceptable include plastic on meat, seafood, loose produce or unwrapped food, newspaper bags, and laundry or dry cleaning bag–with the hope of working with dry cleaners to move to reusable bags in the future.
Go Green officials hope to encourage retailers to use paper bags instead, and would permit retailers to collect a fee from shoppers of ten cents per paper bag.
The proposal specifies that this would impact retailers beyond supermarkets; it would also includes clothing store, hardware store, hospitaal, pharmacies, liquor stores, restaurants, delicatessens, convenience stores, food trucks, sidewalk vendors, farmers’ market vendors, flea market vendors, and any other retail store or vendor.
Thornton prepared a list of other CT towns with ordinances as a comparison point:
She noted that most towns with plastic bag ordinances use the 10 cent fee/12 mil limit as a standard, and that they also exempt the same produce bags, newspaper bags, etc. as WGG is suggesting for Wilton. Thornton said the ordinance WGG has put together is exactly the same as the one adopted by Norwalk.
Ultimately, the effort is all about trying to persuade shoppers to bring their own reusable bags. “We’re trying to get people to really see the reason why we’re trying to get rid of these single use plastic bags,” Thornton added.
Ordinance 2: Eliminate Polystyrene and Plastic Stirrers/Straws Only Upon Request
Thornton explained that the objection to Polystyrene comes from the neurotoxins and suspected carcinogens they contain. She said the reason WGG is pursuing this ordinance is for both health and environmental reasons.
- When burned, polystyrene releases both carbon monoxide as well as 90 different hazardous chemicals.
- When heated, those hazardous compounds may leach out of the container into the food or beverage about to be consumed.
- Even when disposed of properly, polystyrene foam can be blown from disposal sites. Lightweight and buoyant, polystyrene travels easily through gutters and storm drains, eventually reaching Long Island Sound and the ocean.
- Contaminated ash from incinerators get buried in CT Landfill.
- It’s not recyclable.
She listed similar objections to plastic stirrers and straws: With over 500 million plastic straws discarded every day in the US, these pieces last for hundreds of years in our environment only to degrade as microplastics that end up in the food chain, or in our waterways and out to the ocean. They are not recyclable and contaminate CT Landfills with cancer-causing chemicals in the ash after incineration. There are other safer and healthier alternatives, while straws upon request only reduce environmental impact AND cost to businesses.
Various pieces of legislation related to both styrofoam and straws were proposed at the state level last year, but either didn’t get passed or were put on hold; Thornton said legislators will try again during the upcoming session, but WGG would like to “get ahead of it and keep it strict and strong.”
While there are other towns in CT that have adopted ordinances about straws and styrofoam, it’s fewer than those that have addressed plastic bag bans. “We’re getting in at the beginning with these two ordinances,” Thornton said.
She added that WGG members canvassed “most” of the businesses in town. “The prevalence of styrofoam is not really much in our restaurants and places of business,” Thornton said, showing the slide below.
Restaurants in bold had some use of styrofoam, but even many of those are in the process of transitioning away from styrofoam use or offering alternatives. (For example, Thornton mentioned how the Village Market and Caraluzzi’s are exempt from having to totally eliminate styrofoam trays at the meat and fish counters; however, they may offer alternatives to customers, including wrapping meat and fish in butcher paper.)
Much of the WGG effort stresses voluntary behavior change–and, says Thornton, trying to raise awareness and increase accountability.
“A lot of people have moved to the wooden stirrers, and we’re just asking these businesses to put their straws behind the counter as an upon request, the same way you would just ask for a lemon in your water. If they choose to go to a paper straw–like Craft 14, they put it in every cup still–that’s their decision. We always promoted the ‘Skip the Straw’ as a money saver for the businesses, because it’s less that they’re buying.”
Thornton said the ordinance they’re proposing would allow businesses to request time extensions for implementation. In addition, WGG would provide resources for both businesses and residents, including staff training for businesses and providing reusable bags to community members in need.
She also suggested ways Wilton could enforce compliance–officially through the zoning enforcement officer, health department or environmental affairs; or with community help, including anonymous reporting on SeeClickFix, WGG board members or town residents pitching in.
Thornton also spelled out penalties that could be adopted, modeled after what other towns have adopted: a written warning for the first violation; a $150 fine for the second violation; and $250 for each subsequent violation.
Vanderslice expressed a concern that Wilton doesn’t really have staff available for enforcement. “It’s probably, honestly, going to be at the bottom of the pile because we just don’t have the staff.”
Thornton noted that most other towns haven’t had very much issue with enforcement because they see 99% compliance. “I think that’s why a lot of [towns] use their health department because of the restaurant [inspections]–it’s just one extra tick box, on the stirrers and the straws.”
Vanderslice asked if WGG had canvassed the businesses for reaction. Thornton said that they had done an informal poll, but Vanderslice suggested a more documented survey, and working with the Wilton Chamber of Commerce or the Economic Development commission to execute it.
“I need more feedback from the business community. If their customers are going in and telling them they want this, then they will adapt to the customers. If we mandate something, is this the heavy hand of government? That’s why we need to hear from them,” Vanderslice said.
She added, “If businesses support the idea of a ten-cent tax on brown paper bags, if that’s your sense, then we should get that documented and bring that evidence forward.”
Selectman Ross Tartell thought forcing businesses to collect a ten-cent fee from consumers might be overreach. “If a store says, ‘I don’t want to charge it, I want to carry it myself,’ they should have that choice.”
Several of the WGG members responded that trying to change consumer behavior in other ways is less effective. “The fee seems to be the way that does it,” Tina Duncan of WGG answered. “None of us want to pay more fees. But it has worked, just the ten-cent tax, a lot fewer people are taking bags, and the state found they aren’t making as much money as they thought. People changed.”
Vanderslice urged exploring a coalition of businesses and residents, reiterating the need for business input and feedback. “That has to happen, the businesses have to be part of this.”
Next Steps for Ordinance Approval
Ordinances must be approved by voters at a town meeting; WGG will have to go through several steps in order to bring it to voters, including public hearings. Their hope is to make either the Annual Town Meeting and Vote in May or a potential Special Town Meeting already in the works for the Police Station Renovation.
The BOS suggested coordinating with the Wilton Chamber and the EDC as soon as possible to make that happen.