Conservation Society asks Edgartown to support plastic bag ban

A plastic bag sits in a bush outside Stop and Shop in Vineyard Haven - Photo by Monica Busch

Edgartown selectmen agreed at a regular Monday evening to push forward a draft bylaw from the Vineyard Conservation Society (VCS) that would ban plastic shopping bags less than 4 mils (4/1000ths of an inch) thick that are given to customers at the point of sale. VCS is approaching all Island town boards for support and cooperation in adding the bylaw as an article to all town warrants, with the goal of creating an Island-wide ban.

The effort is being managed by a working group that includes two VCS board members, one staff member, two high school students, and four community members. Samantha Look and Joan Malkin of VCS and high school students Daniel Gaines (Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School) and Astrid Tilton (Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School) were at Monday evening’s meeting.

Ms. Look told selectmen that VCS is taking up this initiative because of data that implicate the thin plastic shopping bags’ effect on the environment. These bags are extremely difficult to recycle, she said. VCS reports less than 3 percent actually are recycled nationally. On the Island, it’s more complicated: The equipment at Island recycling centers isn’t equipped to handle the thin plastic bags; people sometimes put those plastic bags into their recycling anyway, which is a costly problem to correct. Those not put in recycling often end up in the garbage, or worse, on the side of the road and in nearby waters.

“I’ve spoken to Don Hatch [director of the Martha’s Vineyard Refuse Disposal and Resource Recovery District]. He is emphatically in support of this because of how plastic bags are driving the price of recyclables leaving the Island. Right now, we are actually paying more per ton for our recyclables to leave the Island than we are for trash,” Ms. Look said.

If the six towns were to approve such a bylaw, they would join a number of other Massachusetts towns with bans, including Falmouth, Provincetown, Barnstable, Harwich, Cambridge, and Nantucket.

Edgartown health agent Matt Poole also attended the selectmen’s meeting. He said that the board of health hasn’t taken a position on the ban because they haven’t discussed it yet.

“I think we’d support the effort,” Mr. Poole said to selectmen. His biggest concern was about enforcement and regulation. He preferred the idea that the ban would be instituted as a bylaw and not as a BOH-enforced rule.

“Ultimately, who’s charged with enforcing it is a bit of a question, but it’s more of a campaign than it is an enforcement activity anyway, I think,” he said.

So far, all towns except Oak Bluffs and Tisbury have been apart of the discussion. Ms. Look said that the West Tisbury selectmen have agreed to submit the bylaw as an article to its town warrant, but they prefer that any bylaw that the towns take up be identical across the Island. Aquinnah town officials have also agreed to support the initiative. Chilmark officials are still discussing the proposal with the working group.

Edgartown selectmen agreed to back the proposal once it is reviewed by the BOH and town counsel Ron Rappaport.

Support is in the facts

VCS has been working on the plastic bag ban project for over a year. The effort was first proposed by executive director Brendan O’Neil, and a working group was formed to study data, draft a bylaw, and work on community outreach. As of now, the working group is still in the process of talking to town boards. The next step will be community outreach and education, which will take the form of meetings with Island merchants and classes.

Ms. Look and Charter School senior Ms. Tilton both expect there to be a lot of discussion about the ban, because it would present a noticeable change to virtually every Islander and visitor.

“At first, I thought, ‘Oh what a no-brainer, of course we’re going to do this.’ Here we are, we live on the ocean, there’s so many reasons. It’s a little change that has a [positive] impact,” Ms. Look said in a phone conversation with The Times.

But as she delved deeper into the issue, she discovered that there is a financial concern from store owners, and a general concern about change within the community. However, she believes a plastic bag ban would be best for the environment.

“All of us get a little bit nervous when there’s a change, and I think we all get a little nervous when we’re told ‘no,’ we can’t have something. But I also think that as we evolve as a community and culture, we realize that maybe things that we’re used to having, and that are a convenience and that we enjoyed having, maybe aren’t for the greater good,” she said.

Similarly, Ms. Tilton said, the working group doesn’t want to force the community into change, but would prefer to change the minds of the ban’s opponents.

“You can’t really address climate change or any other environmental issue without dealing with it where you live. I see this as a problem every day. Every day, driving down the road on my way to school, there’s plastic bags on the side of the road,” she said.

Despite the ubiquity of plastic bags in daily life, Ms. Tilton thinks that the bylaw will find support across the Island. She described her own learning experience about plastic bag pollution at school. At first, she said, she didn’t see why it was a big deal. She described a learning exercise where students were given pros and cons about the ban. A major downside to the proposal was that reusable shopping bags appeared to require more resources and energy for production. She found this persuasive until she realized that the long-term benefit, where each reusable bag would replace single-use plastic bags, clearly outweighed the cost. She believes the data tell the story, and that even if community members resist it, a simple examination of local pollution might convince them.

Ms. Tilton said she believes that a plastic bag ban is an easy solution to a pervasive local problem.

“So many things are so difficult to address, but this is something relatively simple that won’t affect people’s lives as much as they think it will,” Ms. Tilton said.

She is positive about the outcome of the proposal.

“I think it’s very likely it will pass,” Ms. Tilton said.