February 14 2018

Two BHS Students Proposed Ban on Retail Plastic Bags to Board of Selectmen

By: Rich Hosford



Should Burlington ban retailers from using the one-use plastic bags that so ubiquitous?


That is the goal of two Burlington High School students who are lobbying for a proposed ordinance they have written that would remove polyethylene bags from Burlington stores. The pair, Stavan Shah and Ricky Vittum, were at Monday night’s Board of Selectmen meeting to push their idea and give a short presentation outlining the reasons they have taken up this cause.


They are members of the a group of student environmentalists from Burlington High School called Global Activists, which was founded by Shah.


During the presentation they started by outlining the dangers that plastic bags pose for the environment and the scope of the problem. Shah said that in the United states upwards of 100 billion bags are used each year. In Burlington alone, he said, citing a model that estimates bag used based on population, residents use roughly 13 million bags a year.


“That is a staggering amount and should not be that high,” Shah said.


Vittum then took over the presentation and highlighted the dangers the bags pose. He said one big problem is that they are not recyclable through normal recycling processes. In fact, he said, they often clog up the machines at recycling center. Many find their way onto the ground where they litter the environment damaging the beauty of communities.


“I’m sure you have seen plastic bags on the ground around town,” he said. “On land it can take up to 1000 years for these bags to break down and if they’re in water, they may last forever.”


Shah said that animals, especially marine animals, will often eat the plastic. In water they break down in micro-plastics that fish eat. In turn, some of these fish will end up being caught and used for human consumption.  


“So we’re really eating the plastic bags,” he said.


Another problem with the bags, Shah said, was they require the use of non-renewable fossil fuels to produce and that releases CO2 into the atmosphere. CO2, much research has documented, is a driving force of climate change.

Finally, the pair said other communities have shown a ban on these bags are possible. In Massachusetts, they said, 61 cities and towns have already passed ordinances banning them.


The members of the Board of Selectmen had a couple of questions about the proposed ban. One was the thoughts of retailers about not being able to provide the bags to consumers.


Shah said they had reached out to some grocery stores and other retailers in communities from communities that have imposed bans. From what he was told by asking a handful of locations is that they had no problems eliminating the bags and relying on paper bags or customers bringing their own reusable bags.


Board Chairman Chris Hartling asked about the difference in cost for retailers between plastic and paper bags. Shah said that, normally, plastic bags cost stores 3 cents each and paper bags cost 4 cents each. He also said stores can sell their own reusable bags or offer customers cardboard boxes for smaller purchases.


“So obvious the ideal situation is if everyone used the reusable shopping bags,” Hartling said.  


“That is the idea but paper is recyclable and not as environmentally damaging as plastic,” Shah responded.


There was also a question about enforcement. Shah said that under the ordinance the town administrator would be the enforcement officer. When it came to the attention of the town administrator a business was not complying with the ban he or she would check it out. A first time violation would bring a written warning while subsequent violations would bring fines that start at $100 for the second violation and increase by $100 for each following violation.


While members of the board were interested in hearing from the students they were not ready to make any decision about taking a stance on the idea without more information. Ultimately it would be Town Meeting’s decision but the board could place the issue on the warrant for consideration.


“You’ve stated your intent of getting to Town Meeting and there are a couple of different ways to do that,” Hartling explained. “We won’t take a stance on this tonight. We’ve had an opportunity to ask you questions and see the presentation. I think we’re all to a man impressed with the work you have done. I guess the thing we have to do is decide if this is something that we would ask Town Meeting to consider.”


Harting said that before that decision was made he wanted to get the perspective of other parties involved.


“I know, speaking only for myself, the thing I’m going to be most interested in is how do businesses in Burlington feel about the possibility of eliminating plastic,” he said. “I realize it’s only a penny but somebody will have to bear that expense. Also, I’m personally reluctant to get into any situation where we have to fine somebody.”


There are, of course, other ways to get an issue on the Town Meeting warrant and Hartling said as much to the two young activists.  


“But regardless of what we decide, we don’t have the ability or the right or the desire to say to somebody ‘you can’t go to Town Meeting,’” he said. “So let’s talk about it and consider the information and then as a group we’ll make the decision of how we want to move forward from there.”


Finally, though they made no assurances that they would support the idea, members of the board did express their admiration for the work the students had put into the proposal.  


“You should be proud of yourselves and your family should be proud of both of you for taking the initiative at your age,” Hartling said. “I don’t think either of you have your driver's license yet. It good of you guys to take the initiative, it means a lot to us when we see young people do these things.”


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