Waterford dives back into debate over plastic bags

Waterford — Town officials this week reopened debate over single-use plastic bags, with some calling for a ban to help protect the environment and others cautioning the move could wreak havoc on Waterford's retailers and repel new businesses.

Green Party members initially pushed for the ban in April. The proposal would ban the lightweight carryout plastic bags commonly used by retailers and grocers but not large, heavier bags such as garbage bags.

The Representative Town Meeting's Public Health, Recreation and Environment Committee on Wednesday night agreed to brainstorm questions on pros and cons and legal implications to review in the coming months with town leaders, including Town Attorney Robert Avena. The committee meets again on Tuesday, Sept. 25.

When state lawmakers considered a 5-cent tax on the bags in 2017, it estimated the state used more than 1 billion of them annually. Since Waterford accounts for about 1.44 percent of all retail sales in the state, RTM member Joshua Steele Kelly estimates the town distributes almost 14 million of the bags.

In a report to the RTM committee, Kelly cited analysis conducted by New York state's Plastic Bag Task Force, which found that 4 percent of all produced plastics end up in our oceans each year. Based on that report, he estimated that hundreds of thousands of bags used in Waterford wind up in Long Island Sound annually.

"It might be small but we have an opportunity to take action here," Kelly said. "The sooner we do it, the more marine life we save and the more we'll have positive impacts," including reduced greenhouse gas emissions caused by the manufacture and transportation of the bags.

The Environmental Protection Agency says Americans use more than 380 billion single-use plastic bags, which already have been banned in Westport and Greenwich. Stamford and Mansfield also have considered similar bans, and Stonington on Wednesday appointed a task force to explore banning certain plastics, including bags, straws and takeout containers. California banned the bags a couple of years ago, as have cities like Austin, Texas, and Seattle, Wash.

Public Health, Recreation and Environment Committee Chairman Mike Rocchetti said while plastic in the environment indeed is a problem, he questioned why Waterford must become only the third town in Connecticut to institute a ban. The town must research potential impacts on existing and new businesses, large and small, before moving forward, he said.

"As elected officials, you can't just look at what's good for the environment or a few people; it's what's good for everybody," Rocchetti said. He noted taxes have risen in Waterford over the years and questioned, "Why do we want to disadvantage our town competing for businesses?"

RTM member Paul Goldstein argued against a local bag ban, saying it "doesn't go far enough" and describing the idea as "small potatoes." He called for more regional, state or federal solutions to a plastic problem that impacts the globe. Most waterway pollution, he said, doesn't come from the United States, let alone Waterford.

"I totally agree, plastics is an issue," Goldstein said, citing plastic bags, empty alcohol nip bottles on roadways and sidewalks, and disposable fishing equipment. "We're not doing a good job enforcing our litter law in the state of Connecticut. It's not just plastic. If the state has time to do the study, they should have the time to pass legislation."

Kelly countered that the state "continues to fail to take action" and is "solely interested in levying a tax" that's unappealing to residents and businesses alike.

"Why not take that action now and be a leader in the area?" he said.

Kevin Marcks, an Economic Development Commission member who has worked in the hospitality business for about 30 years, said it doesn't surprise him that the state has called for a tax instead of a ban.

"That's their solution for everything," said Marcks, who currently consults for IHOP restaurants on New England development and operations.

Restaurants and businesses aren't avoiding towns with bag bans, they're avoiding places with high taxes, Marcks argued. He added that 15 IHOPs in development in New England — none of them in Connecticut — must serve paper, not plastic.

"The owners didn't bat an eyelash at it," he said.

RTM member Baird Welch-Collins said the town could write the ordinance so it would only go into effect when other towns and cities joined the effort. He added that in most towns enacting bans, conservation commissions serve as enforcement authorities.

In an interview earlier this year, Westport RTM Deputy Moderator Jeffrey Wieser said that town retained its "vibrant retail market" and chains like Stop and Shop, CVS and others "adopted and respected" the ban.

First Selectman Dan Steward has expressed concern about a ban's potential impact on Waterford's hefty retail sector. On Thursday, he said he was not yet convinced that a half-million bags from Waterford end up in area waterways. He said enforcing a ban with fines could prove challenging and ineffective, and he said he would push Waste Zero, consultants hired by the state, to provide better education to towns on recycling.

"Twenty-seven percent of our garbage is recycled and it should be 75 percent," said Steward, who also called for regional discussion with the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments. "We're going to have to look very carefully at it."

b.kail@theday.com

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