By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
WESTPORT, Conn. — The first community in New England to ban plastic bags has no regrets about its decision. The suburban enclave in the middle of the state’s affluent “Gold Coast” region outlawed plastic bags in 2008. Four years later, residents, business owners and school officials say emphatically they wouldn’t bring back the plastic.
“It’s a very good thing,” said Mel Mioli, owner of Westport Pizza, in the town’s central business district. The cost of putting take-out orders in a paper bags was insignificant, especially compared to the environmental benefits. “You cannot destroy plastic,” he said.
Of 25 interviews conducted during a Sept. 21 visit, all respondents insisted on preserving the ban on plastic check-out bags. The ordinance, they said, keeps the town cleaner and protects the local waterways and coastal regions.
“It’s a great rule,” said Katie Williams, 18. “At least paper bags, they can decompose and they won’t do any damage to the ecosystem.”
The Barrington Town Council votes on its own ban Oct. 1. Its ordinance is modeled on the Westport ban. Both eliminate plastic bags from the checkout line at grocery stores and most other retailers. Produce bags and larger garment-type bags are exempt. In both communities, fines for violations start at $150.
Alicia Mozian, director of Westort’s Conservation Department, has never had to issue a citation. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised that I’ve had to do very little enforcement,” she said.
Stores had six months to conform to the law, and one was afforded an extension to use up its remaining stock of plastic bags.
Mozian credits town officials for smoothing over initial objections to the ban. Face-to-face meetings, in particular, helped persuade business owners. “They did a lot of up-front work to gain the support of the community and that helped," she said.
Today, upscale boutiques and national chains such as Walgreens, CVS and Subway have replaced plastic bags with paper, and they didn't have to go out of business.
A unique feature of Westport’s governance is the Representative Town Meeting. The board of about 30 elected members represents neighborhoods across town, serving as the legislative body for its 26,000 residents. A three-member Board of Selectman functions as the executive branch.
Former selectman Mark Marcus said this micro-representative approach motivates residents to get active in community affairs and gives them a greater interest in stewardship of the town. The bag ban, Marcus said, is an example of Wesport’s highly participatory democracy.
“I do think it’s been good for the town,” he said of the ban. “You used to see plastic bags on the street, now you don’t see them anymore.”
His wife, Janice Marcus, noted that any inconvenience casued by the ban has been eclipsed by a sense of satisfaction from doing what’s best for the community. "People grumbled at first, but they got used to it," she said.
Public School Superintendent Elliot Landon said most people hardly noticed that plastic bags were no longer available at local stores and shops. “If people don’t like it or find it more convenient they can go to the next town over,” he said.“People just get used to it.”
“It seems to me people have adjusted quickly,” said Hillary Mandell, standing outside The Fresh Market grocery store.
Plastic bags may have more uses at home, and paper bags without handles can be difficult to carry. But, said Mandell’s friend Sarah Dransfield, the risk to the environment isn’t worth having plastic bags again. “We’d be going backwards,” she said.