Groton surveys residents, merchants on potential plastic reduction initiatives
Groton — At a time when several other local communities are working to reduce plastic consumption, the town has posted an online survey to assess if the Groton community would support such an initiative.
The Conservation Commission, which developed the survey, hopes to get as many residents and merchants to respond as possible so it can gauge the community's level of willingness for an initiative to reduce single-use plastic, specifically straws and shopping bags, commission member Kristin Distante said.
"Locally, plastic waste can be found on our shorelines, beaches and waterways which harms both the ecosystem and the economy," the introduction to the survey states. "Globally, plastic waste ends up circulating in the oceans, disrupting ocean life and gradually breaking down into microplastics which work their way into our diets via the food chain."
Stonington and Westerly, among other communities in southeastern Connecticut, "are finding solutions and alternative materials to keep plastic out of the environment while still supporting local businesses and economies," it notes.
While plastic ending up in the ocean is a worldwide problem, as a shoreline community, Groton is "right on the front lines of it," Distante said. Many residents clean up litter from beaches, or go out in kayaks to pick up garbage in the water.
Distante said communities across the nation have done similar surveys and found strong support both among the public and merchants to try to reduce plastic consumption.
She said the town first wants to find out if the Groton community would support some kind of initiative to reduce consumption of single-use plastic straws and shopping bags. If there is support and the community ultimately decides to move forward with a potential initiative — the type is yet to be determined — she wants residents and merchants to feel included in the process.
The Conservation Commission is slated to present the survey results to the Town Council by February, Distante said.
Once the Town Council receives the report, Town Manager John Burt said he expects a lot of dialogue and outreach to the public, depending on the findings.
"If action is to be taken I expect it would be in the form of an Ordinance which would require a public hearing and go to the (Representative Town Meeting) for the opportunity to discuss and have the chance to veto it," he said by email.
The survey asks questions that include how often a business uses single-use plastics such as straws and bags; if business owners believe reducing plastics "could positively or negatively affect your business," and if the business "will receive public goodwill by a reduction in single-use plastics." It also asks if businesses currently are working to reduce the use of plastics.
The survey further asks people if they'd like to assist the town in developing a potential plastic reduction plan, or if they have any concerns.
Some merchants voluntarily already are taking steps to reduce plastic consumption.
Stephanie Marshall, owner of Tidal River Clothing Company in Mystic and a board member of the Downtown Mystic Merchants Association, said the store has not used plastic bags for about 15 years out of a concern for the environment and largely has received a positive response from customers.
Every once in a while, usually when it's raining, people can get "a little miffed" that the store doesn't carry plastic bags, she said, but it hasn't stopped customers from making a purchase. They usually drop off the bag in their car and then continue shopping around, she said. But most often the response is on the other end of the spectrum: customers are happy to know they're carrying home recycled paper bags.
"I would hope that our community and every community would be able to take some steps to reduce our impact on the environment," said Marshall, who is also an owner of Trove Men's Provisions, another store on West Main Street in Mystic that uses recycled bags.
Town Mayor Patrice Granatosky said she's pleased that the Conservation Commission is taking the step to survey Groton's residents regarding plastic reduction. About 161 people have responded so far.
"Town Councilor Conrad Heede has spearheaded the efforts to raise awareness of this issue in Groton, and brought the Commission to the Council to discuss potential avenues for addressing plastic reduction," she said.
Heede, who said he walks around town and constantly picks up plastic litter, pointed to articles, including a September 2017 USA Today article reporting that 94 percent of U.S. tap water is contaminated by plastic fibers and an NPR article, from the same month, reporting that plastics are being found in shellfish.
"The science on plastics surviving for hundreds of years in the environment is disturbing," he said. "It not only kills animals who mistakenly eat it, whether shellfish, turtles, whales or baby birds, when we eat these animals or drink water contaminated with micro-plastics, we also absorb this waste."
Heede said tapping the town's boards and commissions as advisory boards for the Town Council, as in this case with the Conservation Commission, gives them direction, gets the town as a whole moving in the same direction and benefits the Council with a deeper and more vigorous policy outcome.
"There is potential to use this referral as a jumping off point to increase public awareness, partner with community businesses, launch new projects including school based art contests or community cleanup efforts," he added.
Heede said the Conservation Commission understands the importance of coordinating with other communities "to avoid creating a patchwork of competing and possibly conflicting ordinances that would challenge businesses and confuse customers."
Communities across the country have tackled plastic reduction in a variety of ways, Distante said. Those include an outright ban on plastic bags; charging people a fee to use a plastic bag; offering a "give and take" of reusable bags for when people forget to bring their own to the store; offering plant-based alternatives; or creating products, such as stainless steel straws or reusable bags, with logos for the community. It also could be as simple as merchants asking customers if they need a straw, or if they need a bag, instead of automatically giving them out, she added.
The Groton Conservation Commission closely is watching the efforts of the neighboring town of Stonington to reduce plastic consumption, Distante said.
In Stonington, the Board of Selectmen unanimously has approved a draft ordinance that recommends not using plastic bags and straws and calls for a six-month educational period but the town still is addressing some aspects, Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons said. The selectmen forwarded the document to the town attorney with several questions, including if the town can incorporate a system of rewards — such as publicly recognizing businesses that comply — rather than punishments. At its Jan. 9 meeting, the selectmen are expected to finalize the ordinance and send it to a town meeting.
In Waterford, the Green Party has pushed the issue of a potential ban on single-use plastic bags. The issue has been raised in multiple committees but a date hasn't been set for future discussion.
The link to the Groton survey is available under announcements on the Town of Groton's website, www.groton-ct.gov.
Staff Writer Benjamin Kail contributed to this article.