Groton plastic, polystyrene reduction ordinance to start July 7

Groton — Starting July 7, business and food establishments in town will be banned from offering plastic carryout bags and plastic stirrers, and from providing food in a host of polystyrene products. They also cannot provide plastic straws, unless a customer specifically requests one.

The town ordinance to reduce single-use plastics and polystyrene, which was approved 8-1 by the Town Council on Jan. 7, stands after the Representative Town Meeting this week did not veto the ordinance. The ordinance will not apply to the City of Groton or Groton Long Point.

A petition to send the issue to a direct vote at a referendum did not garner enough signatures to bring the issue before voters.

Before the RTM's vote on Wednesday, more than 20 people spoke, with the overwhelming majority in favor of reducing plastic and polystyrene to protect health and the environment and to preserve the planet for future generations. However, three speakers raised concerns about the ordinance, including its impact on local franchise owners.

Resident Aaron Kane, 22, a recent college graduate who noted that he was one of the younger people in the room, said that while it may be clichéd, it's still very true: "That this is our world that is getting passed down to us, just as this was your world getting passed down from your parents when you were young."

He said it would be very attractive for Groton to "be ahead of the curve on this issue."

Resident Howard Veisz said the "ordinance reflects the fact that each of us has the responsibility to protect the environment and that each little decision, to consume or conserve, to contribute to the pollution or to the preservation of our waters, land and air, is a decision that in the aggregate has enormous consequences."

"From all I've seen in my years in Mystic and Groton, we’re a town and area of well-informed and responsible citizens," he added. "If we don’t lead the way, then who? The effort to save our environment and ultimately ourselves has to take root on the local level and grow from there, as other great movements, such as the Civil Rights Movement, have done in the past."

Ashley Couto-Tewell, who owns five Dunkin' Donuts franchises with her mother, said as franchisees, they don't have a choice in the products they order, and the change from the Styrofoam cup to the paper cup took Dunkin' Donuts more than 10 years as the company researched the perfect alternative.

She said that when other Dunkin' Donuts locations switched to paper straws or put up signs asking customers to request straws, they received negative feedback from customers and reversed their decisions. When another location posted different prices on social media due to new taxes, customers said they would make their coffee at home or go someplace cheaper.

"We’re in a very competitive market and every customer really does matter to us, and an ordinance such as this is just likely to cause us to lose some customers," said Couto-Tewell. She added that she isn't against a ban or improving the environment, but felt the matter should go before voters.

Brae Rafferty, chair of the Conservation Commission, which has been working with the Town Council, town planning department and Economic Development Commission on efforts related to the ordinance, said that while the town does not have any control of large corporations and how they move their products, "we do have a voice in our local habitat. We have a voice in our town about how we wish our environment to look and to be safe not only for us but also for our children, grandchildren, as well as all the organisms that are out there."

Justin Primeaux, who lives on Beebe Cove, said a lot of plastic waste from restaurants — as well as nips — wash up in his backyard. Primeaux, who also owns Mañana Café, said he approached plastic reduction at the restaurant as a challenge at first, but one to tackle and make work. He empathized with franchise owners who are under corporate oversight, while he can make his own choices at the restaurant, but he also stressed the importance of companies looking forward.  

"From a business perspective you have to change," Primeaux said. "You always have to move forward. Aside from the environment, which I care about very, very much because it’s my backyard literally, everybody needs to move forward and keep moving forward."

John Goodrich, the main circulator of the petition, said by phone that he thought this big of an issue should be decided by the voters in town. Goodrich, who also spoke during the meeting, said he supports finding a way to improve pollution in Long Island Sound, but it's important to do it in the right way, and the ordinance does not address major pollutants, such as plastic fiber from clothing or plastic nip bottles. He also said he was concerned about unintended consequences of driving people from town businesses to city businesses, where items, such as plastic straws and polystyrene cups, will still be allowed.

RTM vote

Four RTM members voted in favor of a veto, 32 voted against one, and two abstained, according to a record of the vote.

RTM Member Rosanne Kotowski called the ordinance "step one to more government overreach and regulation."

"This is a feel good ordinance which will provide few results," Kotowski said. "The best thing the Town of Groton can do for the environment is to pick up the litter in and on the sides of the streets and roads in town. If all property owners took responsibility for keeping their properties free from litter as well as properties across the street if vacant, that would be proactive with actual results."

RTM Member Michael Whitehouse spoke in favor of the ordinance, noting warming temperatures and referencing steps taken in past decades to combat environmental threats.

"I think that it is time to take some action, and this isn’t dramatic action, not world-changing action, but it’s also not dramatic action in the sense that it’s going to drive companies out of business and change everyone’s habits," Whitehouse said. "I think there will be some growing pains. I think there will be some discontent but at the same time for the businesses that do get pushback, they can say 'oh blame the town,' so it’s not going to fall on them."

He said he regrets putting franchisees in a tough spot, but pointed out that the more towns that take action, the more corporations will get pushback from their franchisees and realize they have to make changes.

Education period

Groton Planning and Development Director Jon Reiner said the Economic Development Commission is planning a March 30 business forum to share information with the business community and gather feedback on how the EDC and the town's economic development staff can best assist businesses as they transition to adhering to the ordinance. The time and location will be announced closer to the event.

When the ordinance goes into effect, establishments will be prohibited from providing, either for free or at a charge, single-use plastic carryout bags, plastic stirrers, or plastic straws, unless a customer requests a plastic straw, the document states. Establishments also cannot "serve, sell, distribute or provide prepared food" in polystyrene food service products, including cups, plates, trays and clamshell containers.

The ordinance provides a list of exemptions, including the prepackaged bulk sale of plastic straws, plastic stirrers, and polystyrene food service products; dry-cleaning bags; newspaper bags; packages of multiple bags for garbage or pet waste; bags provided by pharmacists, veterinarians, medical and dental facilities; bags for bulk items, like candy or small hardware items; bags for frozen food, meat, fish, or bakery goods, bags nonprofits use to distribute food, clothing and household items, and prepackaged polystyrene containers for raw meat or seafood, among others.

Businesses have the option to seek a one-time, up to 90-day hardship variance from the town manager.

According to the document, businesses that violate the ordinance, will be notified in "writing and given 14 days to gain compliance," and will not be fined for the first offense. Businesses will be fined $150 for each subsequent offense, according to the ordinance.

Other bans in Connecticut

More than 20 communities in Connecticut have moved to ban single-use plastic bags, according to a report from Patricia Taylor, director of the Plastics Project for Environment and Human Health, Inc. Some communities' ordinances also ban other plastic products, including Stonington which prohibits full-service restaurants from offering plastic straws, except if a customer asks for one.

The state implemented in Aug. 2019 a 10-cent tax on single-use plastic bags, while a ban will go into effect on July 1, 2021.

In addition to reducing single-use plastics, communities, such as Norwalk and Westport, also took action against polystyrene food service products, according to news reports. 

k.drelich@theday.com

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