New Canaan High School students last week voiced support for a widely discussed proposed ordinance that would prevent local retailers from using thin plastic bags.
Though the NCHS Student Coalition typically sticks to tasks such as “planning Homecoming and our annual prom, we recently decided to come off the sidelines and begin discussing this,” the group’s president, senior Chase Pellegrini de Paur, told members of the town’s legislative body during a public hearing Feb. 6.
“And while I can’t speak for every student at the high school, I can speak to my own experience in the Coalition talking about this,” Pellegrini de Paur said during the Town Council Bylaws and Ordinances Committee meeting, held at Town Hall.
“Because when we began discussing this issue, I thought we would have a passionate debate with fiery arguments on both sides. But instead, there was this attitude of eerily quiet confusion. It wasn’t that students didn’t care about the issue, but rather that they were confused by the opposition to an ordinance like this. Again, I can’t claim to speak for the 1,200-plus students at the high school, but I think it speaks volumes that six students from the high school came to speak in favor of this, while none came to speak against. Based on the values that we have been taught over the years in the New Canaan Public Schools system, we really believe that we have a responsibility to make a change here. To me, and to many of my fellow students, the need for change on this issue is not only apparent, but it is strikingly obvious, and because of that I encourage the town to adopt this ordinance.”
Under the proposal, local merchants would be prohibited from supplying flimsy carryout bags that are less than 12 “mils,” or thousandths of an inch thick, to customers. Customers would be able to use any type of bag they want so long as they bring it in themselves, and the ban would not include the clear spinning bags that patrons of grocery stores use for produce or baked goods. Instead, the proposal says, retailers would only offer 100 percent recyclable bags, charging up to 10 cents for them.
The hearing opened with members of a local group that proposed the ordinance, a group that calls itself ‘BYO New Canaan,’ presenting to the Council. Then, 16 constituents addressed Town Council during Wednesday’s hearing, sharing their own points of view in person. Others had lodged their points of view through email. The Council will weigh each resident’s opinion, voiced or written, in reaching its decision.
Those who wrote in favor of the ordinance far outnumbered those against, officials said.
Councilmen at the dais included Committee Co-Chair Steve Karl and Committee members Tom Butterworth, Sven Englund and Mike Mauro, as well as Councilmen Joe Paladino, Penny Young, Chairman John Engel and Cristina A. Ross.
Karl noted that several municipal bodies and nonprofit organizations have voiced support for the proposed ordinance, including the Parks & Recreation Commission, Conservation Commission, New Canaan Nature Center, New Canaan Land Trust, Waveny Park Conservancy, Planet New Canaan, and that local life scout Cole Shubert planned to take on initiatives following from its adoption as part of his Eagle Scout project, including a public awareness campaign.
“We really want to hear from you, we want to hear from the public,” Karl said. “One of the things that we have had on this particular issue is a tremendous amount of email, pros and cons, that have come to us … It’s been great to see the engagement out there. So we appreciate all the email. Again, we are here to listen. We want to dispel any fears, we want to dispel misinformation. There are several things I have seen in press, in the comments section. Some of the things I have seen, it really comes down to understanding some of the things we wan to do. We are not talking about banning plastic bags of all types. What we are doing is taking a look at this type of bag, this is a single-use bag, really thin, flimsy. What you have seen blowing around town.”
NCHS students Alexandra Harte and Esha Dagli, members of its Save Our Seas and Environmental clubs, said that were part of a group that found 300 pounds of trash at Pear Tree Point in Darien during a beach cleanup.
“And this is just after the beach not being cleaned for a coupe of days, so that was really shocking to us and that really opened our eyes to the broader issue,” Dagli said. “So we feel that this ban is really important and the fact that surrounding towns have been able to implement this ban really gives us hope and we feel that it is really possible and will be beneficial.”
Harte said that they also had gone to a conference in Norwalk about that city’s plastic bag ban, and a man in attendee who hailed from Paris “talked about his transition to the United States and how he was so appalled by the amount of plastic we use just in our grocery stores.”
“We take fruit, that naturally has kind of a little barrier around them, into plastic and then we put them in another plastic bag and we take them home,” Harte said. “He was just appalled when he found out and we believe that this plastic bag will have a huge positive impact on society and as the next generation we fully support it and believe it is necessary to preserve our environment.”
Thomas Suthons, a junior at NCHS, said he was involved in several clubs including Model UN, and that he himself had watched people’s habits change as a similar restriction on plastic bags took hold in Sydney, Australia.
“It worked really well,” Suthons said. “People do adjust, people do take the bags once they get the push. One thing that I find compelling about this ordinance is that it restricts anything with less than 12 mils in terms of thickness and I think it’s really important to note that because while in Australia, one of the big companies that uses plastic bags released a bag that just meets the requirements but was essentially no better in the end. So I think by specifying this, we can attempt to mitigate this problem a little bit.”
The full Town Council is scheduled to meet Feb. 27.
Engel said the question of whether to approve the proposed ordinance is “more nuanced” than ban versus do not ban. He then raised points that those who’d filed formal written objections to the proposal had not.
For example, Engel said, New Canaan after adopting such an ordinance may risk developing a “false sense of security” that it has addressed a problem though the town would need data-tracking and controls in order to know for sure. Engel called for the Parks & Rec Commission to say whether, in six months’ time, trash in public parks is “appreciably different.” He asked whether, if visitors to parks use the thin plastic bags from stores to pick up after their dogs, will they pick up less often after a ban? He also asked whether people are creating more garbage by using disposable paper bags at a greater rate than they will have been using plastic ones once the latter are banned. He also asked whether the town was instituting a ban without an important follow-up component of educating residents.
Town resident Katie Owsley, of BYO New Canaan, said Engel’s point about establishing metrics to measure the success of the ordinance was well made. She noted that Planet New Canaan is partnering with Walter Stewart’s Market and New Canaan Library to give away reusable bags and that they’ll be provided to anyone who is on a tight budget and feels switching away from free plastic bags is not doable. Owsley added that Planet New Canaan has committed to providing signage and educating the public on the new restrictions.
The Committee’s meeting opened with Karl calling for a moment of silence in remembrance of Jim Cole.