Local Activism Sparks Change Here and in R.I.

By LESLIE FRIDAY/ecoRI News contributor

BROOKLINE, Mass. — Styrofoam, leaf blowers, and plastic bags and bottles may seem like odd bedfellows, but they share something in common across several Massachusetts communities: they are illegal.

Brookline is a trailblazer among Bay State municipalities pushing for such bans. Town Meeting members restricted the use of gas-powered leaf blowers more than a year ago, only allowing for seasonal use during specific times of day. They also voted overwhelmingly in favor last fall of banning Styrofoam containers for takeout food and beverages and nixed disposable plastic bags from most supermarkets and pharmacies.

In nearby Arlington, Town Meeting members voted last spring to ban gas-powered leaf blowers from May 15 through Oct. 15. And in Concord, Town Meeting members last April narrowly pushed through a ban on the sale of single-serving plastic water bottles of 1 liter or less. Voters had been trying to pass the law since 2010, but finally won a slim majority, and the attorney general’s blessing. The new law went into effect Jan. 1 of this year.

All this Massachusetts activism also has helped sparked advocacy in Rhode Island. Channing Jones, a program associate with Environment Rhode Island, said Barrington residents reached out to the organization for help petitioning neighbors and business owners about a ban on disposable plastic bags, after seeing what Brookline had done. The local Conservation Commission picked up the cause and proposed it to the Town Council, whose members voted in favor of the measure last year, but attached a two-year sunset clause.

Few people opposed the ban, including small-business owners. “Most of the people who were making noise about it being a burden on small businesses weren’t small businesses,” Jones said. “They were cranks who in general are not concerned about the environment and don’t want anyone to restrict their right to pollute.”

Providence activists are considering a ban on Styrofoam, Jones said, after hearing of Brookline residents’ success.

“Communities can make an immediate impact,” Jones said. But “to keep it, we need the whole state on board. Once we do that, I think we can start thinking about next steps.”

Jones said plastic bags are an easy first target for environmental activism. They are typically carried by wind or water to the ocean, where they break down into tiny plastic fragments. Marine animals often confuse them for food and choke to death or starve by filling up on these floating particles. The bags are also a common item found in ocean gyres — giant, floating garbage patches where discarded plastics have accumulated for several decades.

Many people living along coastal communities are aware of the problems plastic bags pose to the environment and have already sought alternatives. “It’s pretty easy for people to use paper bags or reusable bags instead; it’s just not something people feel is a big inconvenience,” Jones said. That also makes it “a place to start tackling this problem and a great way to make an immediate impact for marine debris.”