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Source: Westport News

Westport presence felt at state legislative environmental hearing


Posted: February 7, 2009
Originally Published: February 6, 2009

Westport's town ordinance that bans the providing of certain plastic check-out bags by all retail establishments as of March 17 was on prominent display at a public hearing held Monday by the joint Environment Committee of the state legislature, which was carried live on the Connecticut Network (CT-N).

Among the new bills being considered by the committee is a measure that would imposed a five-cent charge on retail plastic bags with the proceeds going to enhance the budget of the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)

Rep. Kim Fawcett (D-133), who represents a portion of Westport, introduced that measure, HB5215, as a way of encouraging the use of reusable bags by shoppers.

Testifying in support of Fawcett's proposed legislation was Westport RTM member Jonathan Cunitz, who along with his fellow RTM District 4 representatives, Elizabeth Milwe, Gene Seidman and Jeffrey Wiser, had successfully championed the ordinance on plastic bags before the RTM last summer.

On the issue of the five-cent charge, Cunitz told the state legislators that a financial incentive for weaning shoppers off plastic bags was the "most effective way" to reduce the use of the bags, but that Westport did not have the authority, on its own, to adopt such a measure.

"We're the first town east of California to adopt a ban," Cunitz said, adding that a statewide charge or a tax on plastic bags would "level the playing field" and accomplish more.

He attributed the passage of the plastic-bag ordinance in part to the fact that so many in town have travelled to Europe and are familiar with the widespread use of reusable bags.

Cunitz joined others at the hearing in pointing out that a much higher charge on plastic bags in Ireland has been "quick and effective" in radically reducing plastic-bag use, by as much as 70 to 95 percent according to a number of estimates.

Fawcett thanked Cunitz for supporting her legislative proposal, as she did in helping with the Westport ordinance, and said such bans and charges are necessary because existing voluntary recycling programs disposable bags have not had a "great response" from the public.

Tim Phalen, executive director of the Connecticut Retail Merchants Association disagreed. He called for a partnership of business and government to expand and support the recycling alternative.

He testified that the imposition of a statewide fee or tax would be "wrongly timed" in the current economic environment and, together with what he called a "hodgepodge" of local restrictions, could be "potentially fatal" to small retailers.

Emmett Pepper, program director for Citizens Campaign for the Environment, which has several thousand members in both Connecticut and New York, said that he had worked with the Westport effort.

He supported the Fawcett bill, but said the charge on disposable bags should be extended to include paper, as well as plastic.

Cunitz said that paper bags were the "real life" alternative to plastic at this time and described the town as not yet ready for restrictions on paper bags.

He noted that the ordinance similarly accommodates the consumer's use of small plastic bags for produce and meats, as well as dry-cleaner bags.

"Those are not the ones that end up in the environment," Cunitz said, but, rather, are disposed through the municipal solid waste stream

Both Fawcett and state senate minority leader John McKinney (R-28), representing Weston, Fairfield, Easton and Newtown, looked to Cunitz for help with assessing the impact of disposable-bag limitations on retailers.

Cunitz said that businesses and the Westport/Weston Chamber of Commerce had wholeheartedly supported the ordinance ban and had even hosted public forums and educational programs to develop support for reusable bags.

"This is one thing the town is behind," Cunitz said, indicating that both environmental and economic considerations are driving the support. "Merchants are saving money," he said, by making reusable bags available.

Speaking in favor of the recycling alternative at the hearing was Stephen Rosario, northeast regional director of the American Chemistry Council, as he did before Westport RTM members before the vote on the ordinance.

He said that it was important to note that not one state has followed the two local California towns and Westport in banning plastic bags.

"There are environmental advantages to plastic bags," which, he said, require 70 percent less energy to produce than paper bags and 80 percent less waste.

"This is a recyclable product that can be used in park benches, decking and many other products," Rosario said in seconding the call for state support of an expanded plastic recycling effort.

McKinney said that he wanted more input on the impact of the Westport ordinance.

"I hope there will be an opportunity to hear more from the folks in Westport after March 17," he said.