The students from Plastic Free MV will get a chance to pitch their plastic bottle ban to Oak Bluffs voters at annual town meeting on April 14, but voters will also face a separate proposal from town business owners that seeks to put off the ban.
The two proposed bylaws revolve around reducing plastic on the Island, but take separate routes to get there.
The goal of Plastic Free MV is to eliminate the use of disposable plastic water and soda bottles 34 ounces (roughly one liter) and under; gallons and large containers would still be allowed. If passed in Oak Bluffs, the bylaw would take effect May 1, 2021.
To make up for the lack of plastic bottles sold and distributed on the Island, the students are advocating for convenient water refill stations in businesses and public areas, and the use of alternative brands in glass or boxed containers.
The group of young activist students were successful in getting the article passed by voters in the up-Island towns of West Tisbury, Chilmark, and Aquinnah. The law will go into effect for those towns in May.
Last week members of the Oak Bluffs Association met to discuss the potential impact of the proposed bottle bylaw, and to talk about an alternative bylaw.
Luke DeBettencourt, owner of the Corner Store on Circuit Avenue, presented a plastics reduction and mitigation bylaw that would not ban any plastics like Plastic Free’s bylaw, but would establish a seven-member committee to create an action plan by March 2021. The action plan “incrementally manages plastic reduction and mitigation in the town over a multi-year time frame,” according to the proposal.
DeBettencourt said the committee bylaw would encompass Plastic Free MV’s ban, plus go further and ban polystyrene. It would also look at recycling and composting.
“I would like to extend an invitation to you, Plastic Free MV, to join us, the business community, and endorse our article, which we feel is all-encompassing,” DeBettencourt said. “I challenge you, you’ve been very passionate. If you’re truly protectors and stewards of our environment and place a value on the environment, then make it a priority. That should come above newspaper headlines … you should accept this invitation.”
DeBettencourt added that the town should look at a “collaborative,” not “piecemeal,” approach to achieve environmental sustainability.
Selectman Brian Packish read a letter from Meegan Lancaster, the town’s health agent, who would be put in charge of enforcing any bottle ban. She wrote that the state designates the local boards of health to protect public health, but does not provide state funding to do so. “Our concern lies with the presumption that enforcement of this bylaw will fall to the Oak Bluffs board of health,” the letter, referring to the Plastic Free MV proposed bylaw, reads. “In light of our existing regulatory responsibilities, the assumption of an additional enforcement allocation is simply not feasible for this department at this time.”
Oak Bluffs resident Ronald Ferreira said technology would take care of many of the waste issues in the next few years. “Now we want to ban all these bottles, like bottles throw themselves out onto our streets, and throw themselves out into the woods, and throw themselves out into the ocean; instead people are doing this, young and old,” Ferreira said. “Let’s go after the polluters, not the product.”
Tracey Stead, mother of Elliot Stead, one of the members of Plastic Free MV, said it was less about the polluters and more about the materials being sold. “They’re not banning plastic, they’re banning single-use, and I think there are plenty alternatives out there,” Stead said. “We have to start somewhere.”
DeBettencourt said banning one type of plastic would shift the environmental burden to another type of container. He also said the proposed committee bylaw would have an educational component. DeBettencourt also criticized Plastic Free’s proposal, saying people could still order single-use plastic bottles from Amazon. “It’s discriminatory against small, brick-and-mortar businesses,” DeBettencourt said.
Students from Plastic Free eagerly shot their hands up during the meeting to share the knowledge and purpose behind their bylaw. They made it clear their proposal would not happen overnight, giving business owners plenty of time to prepare, and stressed the negative impact plastic has on the environment.
“When a plastic bottle is [exposed] to UV sunlight, it releases methane, which is 12 times more potent than carbon dioxide, so that has an even greater effect on the environment,” West Tisbury student Emma Bena said.
A fellow Plastic Free member agreed. “I wish we had lots of time just to think about this and debate it more, but we’re running out of time. We need to take actual action now. We can’t just form a committee and talk about this for another year. We have to do something today,” Finn Robinson, a Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School student, said.
The students also showed different alternatives to single-use plastic bottles that businesses could use, such as Mountain Valley Spring Water, which is in glass bottles; Boxed Water, which is in a paper carton; and Voss water, which also comes in glass bottles.
Selectman Michael Santoro said he wanted to see Plastic Free and the business owners get together to come up with one warrant article, but Annemarie Ralph, a teacher at the West Tisbury School who was with the Plastic Free students, said the kids would probably turn down the committee proposal, especially because it was the first time they had a chance to review it.
“It doesn’t do anything, it’s a lot more talk,” Ralph said.
Selectmen then approved putting both bylaws on the warrant, giving business owners and Plastic Free the option of coming together to later amend their bylaws at town meeting or to keep them separate.
Speaking to the Plastic Free students, selectman Greg Coogan said getting their bylaw on the warrant was a start. “You’re insisting all or nothing, which I think you have to realize is that doesn’t work well all the time,” Coogan said. “Watching programs about plastics, it’s all true.”
In other business, selectmen addressed the situation at the fire department following the departure of embattled Fire Chief John Rose.
“So far everyone has just stepped up tremendously. We have some people that are just putting in the extra mile and the extra effort to make sure everybody stays safe, and we have total and complete confidence both in the fire and the EMS operations in our town,” Packish said.
Selectmen have been in talks with fire department command staff and consultant George Baker, a former Mashpee fire chief. Baker has helped the town “formulate a direction.” Packish also thanked fire chiefs Alex Schaeffer of Edgartown and John Schilling of Tisbury for their support.