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Explore our latest coverage of environmental issues, climate change and more.

Brattleboro Voters Will Weigh A Plastic Bag Ban On Town Meeting Day

Howard Weiss-Tisman
Tim Maciel says he was motivated to get a plastic bag ordinance in Brattleboro after the presidential election.

The town of Brattleboro will hold a Town Meeting Day vote that could lead to a ban on stores handing out plastic bags.Tim Maciel started the petition to get the question on the ballot, and he says for the most part, Brattleboro is as green as they come.

"Brattleboro is environmentally conscious," he says. "We care about out our oceans and rivers and wildlife. That's kind of what makes us distinct."

But Maciel says that distinction is weakened with every plastic bag that's given out by a Brattleboro cashier.

Maciel says the flimsy single use plastic bags that are given out at grocery stores are especially troubling. He hopes Brattleboro voters agree with him when they go to the polls next Tuesday.

Maciel went out and helped gather about 500 signatures to get the question onto next week's Town Meeting Day ballot.

Related: #TMDVT Sampler: Here's What's On Tap For Town Meeting Day 2017

The vote is advisory, and it encourages the select board to pass an ordinance that would prohibit stores from giving out "single-use carry out plastic bags."

"Brattleboro should be distinctively Vermont,"  he says. "If we're using these things then we're just like any other irresponsible town in the country. Brattleboro in my mind is progressive, and this is not who we are."

Maciel is from San Jose, California, which banned plastic bags from stores in 2012.

He's been in Brattleboro since 1999, and he says he's been thinking about getting his adopted hometown to make the same move for a few years.

He wrote letters to the Legislature. He met with local officials. But nothing happened.

And then, the left-leaning Maciel watched his country elect Donald Trump as President.

"I have to admit, I was in such a funk after the presidential election," Maciel says. "Then President Obama said, 'Get involved at a local level.' So I thought, the EPA is going to do what they're going to do, but our town, Brattleboro, is going do what's right, and ban these things."

Down Main Street at Sam's Outdoor Outfitters, clumps of plastic bags hang behind every register.

Plastic bags hang on a wall at Sam's Outdoor Outfitters in Brattleboro in 2017. Since then, the town has banned single-use plastic bags.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
VPR File
Plastic bags hang behind the register at Sam's Outdoor Outfitters in Brattleboro.

Brad Borofsky is co-owner of Sam's, and he says he's already invested in what he thought were biodegradable bags, only to find out that they didn't break down.

If people bring in their own bags, he worries about shoplifting, and paper bags have their own environmental impacts.

Borofsky says he'll follow any ordinance that gets passed, but he's not sure it's quite as easy as the supporters make it sound.

"There are so many things making it harder to do business," says Borofsky. "We're competing with the internet, and in most cases the internet doesn't have to deal with any of the things that are hitting us as a brick-and-mortar type of business. But this is just one more thing.

"When you decide you want to go into business, you think it's all about selling merchandise and making the customer happy. It's a lot more complicated than that."

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Cities and towns across the country have already passed ordinances that ban plastic bags. In 2016, the entire state of California passed a referendum banning single-use bags.

Phil Rozenski is policy chair for the American Progressive Bag Alliance, a trade group that represents plastic bag companies.

He says plastic grocery bags are easy targets for communities to phase out, but the reality is that banning plastic bags has very little impact on the amount of waste produced.

"In these communities, really what we like to see is comprehensive looks at the waste stream," Rozenski says. "That's going to be what's going to make meaningful differences in the long run, not feel-good legislation. You can ban anything, and it goes away, but is it going to make any difference? All the post-ban studies are finding 'No.'"

Laws across the country range from outright bans, to only allowing recyclable or thicker bags, or forcing retailers to charge the customer for taking them.

If Brattleboro voters approve the ban on Tuesday, it will be up to the select board to write an ordinance for the town.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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