Updated 7:35 p.m.: PDF added; 9:01 a.m.: Copy edits
NORWALK, Conn. – Common Council members are poised to ban disposable plastic shopping bags.
The draft ordinance, set to be voted on by Council members in early January, would also require retail establishments to charge customers 10 cents for paper bags to encourage the use of reusable cloth bags. Repeated applause marked Tuesday’s Ordinance Committee public hearing on the matter, as most speakers offered enthusiastic support for the ban.
“Charging a dime for a bag is a fine way to get people into habits,” David Buea said.
Much of the commentary concerned the environmental hazards posed by the widespread, voluminous use of plastic. Some commenters referenced a documentary segment shown this weekend on the CBS show 60 Minutes.
“Why a ban? The numbers tell a story,” Betty Ball, a member of Skip the Plastic Norwalk, said. “Americans use 100 billion plastic bags a year which require 12 million barrels of oil to manufacture. The Hartford Courant estimates Connecticut uses 1 billion plastic bags a year, breaking that number down further to Norwalk using about 30 million bags a year.”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, stormwater carries plastic into waterways, and 100,000 plastic bags make their way into Long Island Sound every year, she said.
“Plastic bags take hundreds of years to degrade, what’s more, they don’t break down completely but instead photo degrade into microplastics which absorb toxins and continue to pollute the environment… another recent study found that 90 percent of table salt contains microplastics,” Ball said.
She added that municipalities are saving money by not having to process plastic bags, and a petition in support of the ban has been signed by 1,500 Norwalkers.
The Mayor’s Water Quality Committee supports the ban, Chairman Joe Schnierlein said.
“As a boater and a biologist, I have pulled plastic bags off of water fowl,” he said. “I have pulled plastic bags off of lobsters. I have pulled plastic bags off of motor boat engines, sailboat keels, it’s already out there and we have got to put a stop to it before it gets too ridiculous.”
“Bags were banned in Westport a couple of years ago and we all adjusted,” Dick Harris said. “… The adjustment isn’t all that bad, it’s pretty easy.”
But Elsa Peterson Obuchowski said the people in the crowded Council chambers didn’t represent Norwalk’s demographics. “It’s really easy if you have a car, you carry bags with you,” Obuchowski said.
Low-wage job holders may not be able to carry stuff to work and a paper bag won’t be much good when walking home from a bus in the rain, she said. She went on to suggest that reusable bags should be made available to low-income people.
The problem is broader, because, “If you go into store, it’s really, really hard to buy things that are not already encased in plastic,” she said. Obuchowski wondered why a staple gun needs to be encased in plastic as if something terrible might happen to it otherwise.
Sam Griffith said that you can recycle plastic bags at Walmart or Stop n Shop.
“I believe this ordinance would be a solution in search of a problem. There’s solutions right now,” he said. “… If we were to have this ordinance approved it would be like cleaning a little itty bitty corner of the room over there as it relates to problem of plastics.”
Griffith supports a state-wide ban but opposes a local ban. “It just doesn’t make any sense, especially where there is tremendous costs for the merchants,” he said.
John Flynn called it a “total waste of time” and asserted there are environmental issues in Norwalk that need to be addressed. Steven Bentcover said people have lived with paper bags before and will be fine.
“Yes, there are more problems than simply plastic bags,” he said. “There are problems with single use bottles of water… you’ve got to start somewhere. I think this would be a wonderful first step to make Norwalk a more progressive city.”
Council President Tom Livingston (D-District E) said the Council has arranged through the Mayor’s Office and other groups to distribute reusable bags to low-income people, such as at Norwalk Housing Authority complexes.
There’s a six month delay once the ordinance is passed and the City intends to start an education program, which will include outreach to children in their schools, he said.
The Committee voted to remove a line from the draft ordinance that would have penalized retailers for not posting signs to inform shoppers about the plastic bag ban and the 10 cent fee for paper bags.
“Our intent, as we have discussed before, is not to go out there and penalize people. It’s really to help change a lifestyle, if you will,” Livingston said.
The needs of low-income people are “obviously a very big issue” whenever the Ordinance Committee discusses a change to the ordinances in “very diverse” Norwalk, Committee Chairwoman Eloisa Melendez (D-District A) said. She added that changes to ordinances can be revisited.
Members of her family ride the bus and carry cloth bags because they’re “easier to keep, to use, they’re reliable,” she said. “The real point of this is to really change behavior.”