Oak Bluffs selectmen shelve town-wide plastic bag ban

Responding to an outcry from business owners, selectmen unanimously vote to remove a ban article from the annual town meeting warrant.

Local merchants said an outright ban would have significant financial implications. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

Members of the Oak Bluffs business community were out in full force at Tuesday night’s selectmen’s meeting, to oppose a proposed warrant article that would ban merchants from using single-use plastic bags as of Jan. 1, 2017.

The “community forum,” as it was described on the agenda, was intended to give business owners the chance to amend the warrant article, which selectmen had unanimously endorsed. However, by the end of the hourlong discussion, selectmen did an about-face, and unanimously agreed, 5-0, to table the bylaw until the next annual town meeting, or until a special town meeting if one is scheduled in the fall.

Selectmen also agreed that a committee comprised of business owners, town officials, and members of the Vineyard Conservation Society (VCS), which has spearheaded the ban, should be created to refine the bylaw before it is put on the next town meeting warrant.

The selectmen’s vote to remove the article means that Oak Bluffs will be the only Island town without a plastic bag ban on its town meeting warrant this spring.

Oak Bluffs is unique

Business owners of all stripes told the board that the ban would create an enormous burden and take a sizable cut out of their already thin profit margins.

“I’ve spent hours and hours researching these initiatives; they were aimed at big box stores, not mom-and-pop stores,” multibusiness owner and former Oak Bluffs selectman Todd Rebello said. “We don’t have the buying power they do. My cost last year for bags was about $1,500. This initiative as written will take my costs to between $8,500 and $14,000.”

Mr. Rebello said the only way he could make up for the increase would be to cut jobs in his stores, noting that he already has to account for minimum-wage increases this year and next year.

Robert Pacheco, owner of Reliable Market, said the ban would drastically increase his overhead costs. “Last year we purchased 548 cases of plastic bags at a cost of $14,300,” he said. “If they were paper, it would equate to 1,370 bales at $61 a bale; that would cost $83,500. That’s a lot of money.”

“I personally ask people if they want paper or plastic,” Susan Phillips, co-owner of Phillips Hardware, said. “A lot of people have their own bag, but I can tell you, when it rains, 100 percent say they want a plastic bag.”

“I agree these bags can be a nuisance, and I’m willing to do more, I’m willing to go to a higher cost, but I’m not willing to break my business,” Mr. Rebello said. “Don’t put this on a few of us who are struggling to stay in business. Let’s slow the process down and give us time to come up with a solution, together.”

“This is a town bylaw written by a regional organization,” selectman Gail Barmakian said, referring to VCS, which drafted the article. “It will affect Oak Bluffs differently than other towns. We’re unique. Reliable is the only supermarket on the Island in a downtown area.”

“We also have three times the takeout restaurants of other towns,” chairman of the selectmen and restaurant owner Mike Santoro said.

A key tenet of the proposed bylaw states that the plastic bags are not recyclable and often cause problems with recycling machinery at Island transfer stations. But highway department supervisor Richie Combra said that the bags could be recycled with the proper machinery, and he would take up the matter in his Friday meeting with the transfer station staff.

Former planning board chairman John Bradford said the volume of paper bags is seven times greater than plastic bags, which means transfer stations would be shipping seven times the volume that’s currently being shipped off-Island, at considerable expense. He also said that the town of Yarmouth has plastic bag recycling, and suggested consulting with appropriate town officials there.

At previous meetings, selectmen had questioned how enforceable the ban would be as written. William Giordano pointedly raised the question Tuesday night. “Who’s enforcing this?” he said. “Is someone going to get arrested on Fourth of July weekend for a bag violation?”

Mr. Rebello suggested forming a committee of business owners, selectmen highway department supervisor Richie Comba, and VCS staff to draft a new bylaw. “I’m not big on creating committees, but if there’s ever been a time to start one, this is it,” he said.

“I hear the concerns. It will take putting our heads together,” VCS staffer Samantha Look said. “But it’s too bad we’re turning our heads away from a real solution. These bags are everywhere.”

Ms. Look reminded the board that the bags are not only unsightly, but they have deleterious effects on wildlife, both in the ocean and on land. She said the VCS has done extensive research into alternative bags that are biodegradable or compostable. “Unfortunately, what is available out there right now doesn’t solve the problem that we see,” she said. “You need industrial composting to work with present alternatives, which we don’t have.”

“There will probably be a better bag in a few years,” Mr. Santoro said. “In the meantime, I totally agree that we should reach some kind of compromise by next town meeting.”

Ms. Look told the board that the VCS had received a great deal of positive response on the ban from Oak Bluffs residents.

“But these people are the economic engine that drives this town,” Mr. Santoro said.