When the 2019 legislative session opens this week at the Capitol, Gov. Ned Lamont and the General Assembly will have their work cut out for them, with a list of critical agenda items a mile long.
Among them: straightening out the state’s finances; proclaiming, both in word and deed, that Connecticut is “open for business”; how to implement highway tolls (we know they’re coming in some form); whether to allow sports betting; whether to legalize recreational marijuana; acting on paid family and medical leave legislation; and weighing the need for stricter gun control measures.
Most of those measures have been debated extensively over the last several years. I’ve got my eye on a lesser known but equally interesting item. Fortunately, one of my pet peeves caught the attention of intrepid reporter Jack Kramer.
As is the case in most states where the idea has been floated, Connecticut’s General Assembly is unlikely anytime soon to enact a statewide ban on those ubiquitous plastic shopping bags that seem to be causing so many problems. The inaction stems, at least in part, from groups such as the American Progressive Bag Alliance, whose name sounds like a forward-thinking interest group but in reality is a lobbying firm supported by major plastics manufacturers. Indeed, APBA spent more than $3 million to support unsuccessful efforts to repeal a ban on those plastic bags passed by the California state legislature. Plus, there is a feeling among consumers, myself among them once upon a time, that not having the bags available would be an unacceptable inconvenience.
So this reluctance to challenge the powers-that-be on the state level has prompted towns in Connecticut to take matters into their own hands. In some cases, they have enacted their own bans. Other towns are simply starting the conversation.
“Many of those discussions have been initiated by environmental groups who say they are tired of waiting for the state to take action on the issue,” Kramer reports.
Bans have been discussed at several meetings in towns in the New Haven area but I have not seen much evidence of ongoing action elsewhere in the state. The only two towns with bans in place in Connecticut to date are Greenwich and Westport, with Stamford’s ban taking effect in April.
More than 70 towns in Massachusetts have also seized the day and enacted bans. Where I work in Great Barrington, taxpayers passed a ban on single-use plastic shopping bags in 2013 by a clear majority. The new “plastic reduction bylaw” didn’t take effect for almost a year to give retailers and others time to adjust. There was some grumbling from consumers and merchants but hardly anyone notices anymore.
In order to work, the laws must be specific. Great Barrington’s ban prohibited the sale or use of thin-film (2.5 mils or less) plastic bags with handles. That means those bags without handles in the produce aisle are still permissible. So, too, are garbage bags and the like. The law is enforced by the issuance of fines. The town effectively banned on-premises packaging of items in styrofoam in 1990.
At this point, it practically goes without saying that those bags are a menace. As the Great Barrington bylaw noted, the bags aren’t biodegradable, they are killing the marine life that ingest them, they clog storm drainage systems and, in the U.S. alone, they use millions of barrels of crude oil per year just for their manufacture.
But worse yet — and even many conservatives would find themselves in agreement here — those bags are routinely (and mistakenly) tossed into recycling bins. When those bins are taken by haulers to recycling facilities, the bags jam the machines that sort the recycling, wasting countless dollars and labor.
Indeed, things have gotten to the point that China, a major processor of American recycling materials, has severely cut back on the amount and variety of recyclables it will accept (China calls it “foreign garbage”). One of the reasons given is that Americans are such poor recyclers.
I see it at the transfer station in my town all the time. At the single-stream recycling bins, there are a large signs clearly prohibiting certain items. Yet I routinely see these very items in the bin: tin foil, gift wrapping paper, styrofoam, insulated wires, and yes, plastic shopping bags.
There are also discarded pizza boxes in the bin, despite a sign that says “No Pizza Boxes” (they are typically contaminated with grease). And even the recyclables placed in the bin are typically an unwashed and filthy mess. I can only imagine how much extra work Chinese workers had to perform in order to process our garbage masquerading as recycling.
Some towns in Massachusetts, including Great Barrington, are moving to ban single-use plastic water bottles. I’m all for it, especially if done to reduce the amount of waste we produce. There are, after all, alternatives such as reusable stainless steel bottles.
As the recent catastrophic failure of the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority trash-to-energy plant in Hartford reminds us, we need to produce less waste, whether it be in the form of garbage or recycling. Lawmakers in Hartford, please take notice.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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