Come fall, shoppers in Hamden will have to start remembering their reusable shopping bags.
The town’s Legislative Council passed two new ordinances Tuesday evening — o ne banning single-use plastic checkout bags, the other requiring that businesses give drinking straws only on request.
Both passed with two abstentions.
Brad Macdowall, the representative for the Ninth Legislative dDistrict, first introduced the legislation to the Environment and Conservation Committee at the Jan. 22 meeting. Council members said they wanted to hear more from the business community, so they decided to schedule the final vote for the Feb. 4 council meeting. When questions arose about how the ordinances would be enforced, and about an ordinance already on the books that might conflict, the council further postponed the vote while those questions could be answered and a revised bill could be written.
The new bag ordinance, which will go into operation in the fall, bans all single-use plastic bags, of any thickness and type of plastic, that are given out upon checkout from a store. It will allow paper checkout bags, but only those that are 100 percent recyclable and are made from at least 40 percent recycled material.
The ordinance will still allow the plastic “product bags” used for meat, bulk items, vegetables, and other items that require a bag within the store.
The Quinnipiac Valley Health District, which does health inspections of businesses in Hamden, will take up the front line of enforcement by notifying the litter enforcement officer if it notices a business providing plastic bags. The enforcement officer will then investigate and issue a warning if he or she determines that the business is in violation, then a Notice of Violation, then finally a citation, which would include fines, if the business still does not cooperate.
“I don’t expect to collect fines. This is not a punitive thing,” said Macdowall. In other communities that have enacted similar bans, he said, “there has been no necessity to collect any fines.” Businesses have simply gotten on board, he said.
(Read about what some local shop owners, workers, and their customers think here).
Citizens And Lobbyists Testify
During a public hearing preceding Monday night’s vote, 22 people got up to speak in favor of both the plastic bag and the straw ordinances. Among those who spoke were four Hamden sixth graders.
Neela Iyroose, 11, told the council that she recently did a research project for class on the Pacific Garbage Patch, a massive expanse of plastic and other debris in the Pacific Ocean.
“We need to ban these single-use plastics because of their effects on the oceans,” she told the council.
Christina Crowder, who serves as vice chair of the Energy Use and Climate Change Commission, brought up the human-health effects of plastics. Plastic does not degrade, she said. Instead, it simply breaks up into tiny particles that then get into water and are taken up by plants, which humans then eat, ingesting tiny plastic particles. “We’re going to find out sooner or later,” she said, “if our pancreas’ can handle having a buildup of these plastics.”
Louis Burch, Connecticut program director for Citizens Campaign for the Environment also spoke. (See video)
Michelle Gibbs, who works at Schulze Farm, told the council that, despite some talk about plastic bags being necessary for vendors of farm products at farmers’ markets, she supported the ban.
“Vegetables do not need plastic to be sold,” she said.
Only one person spoke in opposition of the ban.>
Erin Graziani, communications manager for the American Progressive Bag Alliance, traveled up from Washington D.C. for the hearing. The American Progressive Bag Alliance is a membership association that lobbies for the plastic bag manufacturing industry. Bag manufacturers compose its membership and provide its funding through their dues.
“The facts are clear,” Graziani said. “Plastic bags are often described as single use, but in reality, there’s nothing single use about them.” People use them as trash bags, she noted. A ban would force people to buy trash bags, which would actually increase waste, she said.
She also told the council that “plastic bags are the most environmentally sustainable option at the checkout counter.” She cited studies as evidence and compared the effects of plastic with those of canvas and cotton, both of which, she claimed, are worse than plastic. She suggested that, instead of banning plastic bags, Hamden should hold a recycling competition in its school district.
The vote came two weeks after the meeting at which it was originally supposed to take place because of concerns about enforcement and an old ordinance.
After the new ordinance was originally introduced, At-Large Rep. Marjorie Bonadies noticed an ordinance on the books that she thought might conflict with the bag ban. In 1989 the Legislative Council adopted a ban on polystyrene, a type of plastic used to make Styrofoam and known to be harmful to humans. Council members were concerned that the old ordinance might conflict with the new ordinance because some produce bags, which the new ban allows, used to contain polystyrene. According to Macdowall, however, they no longer do, so there is no conflict.
Though the ordinance was still in the town’s code, it was unclear whether the ordinance was actually still effective. The council voted to repeal the ordinance in 1995, but somehow it had remained on the books, though it was not enforced. Town Attorney Sue Gruen investigated and could not determine why the ordinance was still on the books. She wrote that it might be the result of a clerical error. The council’s intent, she wrote, was clear, and she thought it likely that a court would deem the ordinance repealed, though she could not say for sure.
The new ordinance was amended to take care of any potential conflict with a clause, stating that in the event of conflict, the new ordinance will take priority.
Not So Fast
Though the meeting began at 7 p.m., it took until after 10 p.m. for the council to finally pass the ordinances.
Most council members supported the bill, though some had hesitations. At-Large Rep. Bonadies, one of two Republicans on the council, said that paper bags actually generate more waste than plastic bags. She also said that cotton is not a good alternative because it uses enormous amounts of water and pesticides.
The ban could have unintended consequences, she added. Consumers would replace them with thicker bags that could take more space in the landfill. The ban would also transfer a business overhead expense onto the public.
At-Large Rep. Elizabeth Wetmore, the other Republican on the council, said that in general she supports banning plastic bags, but she did not think it was wise to do so before the state does. Hamden is close to other towns; she said she worries the ban will put a strain on Hamden businesses because shoppers would simply go to other towns that don’t have bag bans.
Once the ban had passed committee and was being discussed for passage by the whole council, District 7 Rep. Michael Colaiacovo introduced an amendment that would offer a deferment for farms.
After a recess to allow Colaiacovo to draft the amendment with Gruen, Macdowall challenged the amendment by trying to introduce an amendment to the amendment that would make the deferment temporary. He did not like the idea of giving some businesses deferments while not giving them to others, he said.
The council took another recess so that Macdowall and Colaiacovo could come to an agreement and discuss new language with Gruen. When it came back, both Macdowall and Colaiacovo withdrew their amendments to introduce a new one. The new amendment added a section that grants a deferment for farm stands and farm stores owned by farmers for 12 months after the ordinance goes into operation sometime in the fall of 2019.
The amendment passed unanimously.
Bonadies introduced an amendment that would grant a deferment to businesses that have already announced phase-outs of plastic bags. It failed.
Finally, the council voted on the whole ordinance and it passed with abstentions from the two republicans.
The straw regulation also passed, with no discussion, by the same margin.
Way The Wind Blows
As many speakers and council members mentioned throughout the meeting, the state is currently looking at similar legislation. Eleven bills have been introduced to the environment committee so far, but none have had public hearings.
Right now, said District Four Rep. Eric Annes, “the wind blows on removal of single-use plastic bags in Connecticut.”
A statewide ban is far from certain. State Rep. Josh Elliott, who represents Hamden co-owns the Thyme and Season market, spoke in favor of the ban during the public hearing. He said that at the state level, it is a matter of “flipping a coin.” He said there are “absolutely no guarantees it will get done there.”
At-Large Rep. John DeRosa, who was acting as council president because Mick McGarry was absent, urgent members of the public assembled at the meeting to lobby the state in order to help pass a statewide ban.
“Let’s take all this energy,” he said, addressing the public, “and take it where it belongs: the state level and the federal level.”