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Girls propose ban on plastic bags

Weston Intermediate School students Colleen Moore and Julia Morledge would like to ban plastic shopping bags in Weston for environmental reasons. —Kate Moore photo

The question “Paper or plastic?” could be phased out in Weston stores.

A pair of Weston fourth graders would like to ban the use of plastic shopping bags in town and are submitting a petition to the selectmen asking for the ban at the board’s meeting on Thursday, Feb. 7.

The students behind the petition, Colleen Moore, 10, and Julia Morledge, 9, have collected 150 signatures so far on the petition to prohibit plastic shopping bags in town.

They would like the selectmen to put the issue on the budget referendum scheduled for April 24. “We hope to get on the ballot so we can raise awareness of this important issue,” Julia said.

They believe plastic shopping bags, commonly used at supermarkets, restaurants, and other stores, should be banned because they are harmful to the environment.

According to their petition, their main concern is that plastic shopping bags require the use of “millions of gallons of petroleum” to produce that could be better used for transportation or heating.

Some of the other environmental concerns with plastic shopping bags the girls list on their petition are:

• Americans throw away one billion plastic bags every year; only 1% to 3% are ever recycled.

• Plastic bags kill thousands of marine animals annually.

• Plastic bags are part of the worldwide global warming epidemic.

• Plastic bags can clog waterways, causing floods.

• Plastic bags take a thousand years to disintegrate into even smaller particles that still keep polluting the earth.

As an alternative to plastic shopping bags, the girls recommend using washable and reusable cloth bags or paper bags.

The main business that would be affected by the ban in Weston is Peter’s Weston Market, the town’s only grocery store. “We wouldn’t want to hurt Peter’s Market. But we think they could sell reusable cloth bags and make some money from them,” the girls said.

Opposing the ban

Jim Magee, the owner of Peter’s Market, opposes a ban on plastic shopping bags, claiming there would be a huge impact on the store if he had to switch to all paper.

One issue, he said, is the inconvenience the switch would cause customers. “Paper bags aren’t good for handling things like milk, meats, deli, frozen and cold items,” he said.

Peter’s uses plastic bags made from recycled plastic, he said, the same as the Village Market in Wilton.

Another issue is expense. Mr. Magee said it would cost about $40,000 to $50,000 more per year to switch to paper because the store would go through many more paper bags, and they are much more expensive than plastic bags.

Stores that have switched to paper are usually part of a large chain and can absorb the costs, Mr. Magee said. But for an independent store, he said, the costs would be significant and could impact personnel and other operations at the store.

Another challenge, he said, is storage space. Plastic bags take up only about one-fifth of the space as paper bags. Mr. Magee said his cash registers aren’t equipped to handle a large volume of paper bags and would have to be reconfigured. Storage space is tight at the store, and he said he doesn’t have adequate storage space for a large number of paper bags.

On an environmental note, because paper bags are much heavier than plastic bags, he said, they require a lot more fuel to be transported to his store.

Still, he said, he understands where the girls are coming from with their environmental concerns.

The girls acknowledge the market would need to use more paper bags, but they believe paper would be better than plastic, because paper bags come from trees and are a renewable resource.

“We’d like to meet with Mr. Magee and see what he can do. Maybe he could sell reusable cloth bags and make up the cost difference,” Julia said.

Health risks

While there may be environmental advantages to reusable bags, there are health risks, too.

According to the California Department of Public Health, reusable cloth shopping bags can accumulate bacteria from raw produce, meat, poultry, and fish that can cross-contaminate other foods and non-food items.

Last year, a nasty outbreak of norovirus infections affecting a group of soccer players in Oregon was traced to a reusable cloth grocery bag, according to a report by NBC News.

The soccer players, a group of teenage girls, got sick after eating packaged cookies that had been stored in a reusable cloth bag that later tested positive for noroviruses — a group of viruses that cause gastrointestinal illnesses.

What made the transmission of the viruses especially noteworthy is that no person-to-person contact was necessary to spread the bug, according to William Schaffner, chairman of the Department of Preventative Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, who was quoted in the story. He called noroviruses “tough bugs” that can live for prolonged periods on objects and surfaces.

Washing cloth bags, especially with a disinfectant such as Lysol or Clorox, effectively kills noroviruses, so bag maintenance needs to be kept in mind. “Cloth bags have to be washed. But we think that is easy and worth doing,” the girls said.

Westport ordinance

Weston wouldn’t be the first town in Connecticut to ban plastic shopping bags. Westport passed an ordinance in 2008 banning plastic checkout bags. (A similar ordinance proposed last year in Darien was defeated). Colleen and Julia believe Westport’s ordinance could serve as a model for Weston.

Westport’s ordinance bans the use of plastic bags at checkout, although it still allows thin plastic bags to be used for meats and produce.

The Westport ordinance applies to all retail stores, sidewalk sales, farmers’ markets, flea markets, and restaurants. It excludes sales of goods at yard sales, tag sales, other sales by residents at their home, and sales by nonprofit organizations.

Project Challenge

The girls came up with the idea to start the petition in third grade as part of an assignment for Project Challenge, a class at the Weston Intermediate School. Project Challenge encourages students to study and research a particular topic. The program runs from third through eighth grade.

“I wanted to do something that was good for the environment, and this seemed like a good idea,” Colleen said. Julia had the same feelings about the environment and joined in.

The girls were mentored by Jonathan Leibovic, a community organizer for the Toxic Actions Center, a group that helps residents with environmental issues.

The girls spent last summer collecting signatures for the petition at farmers’ markets and online at change.org/petitions/weston-ct-board-of-selectmen-ban-plastic-shopping-bags-from-weston-ct.

Comments on the online petition’s site called plastic shopping bags “terrible,” and said alternatives such as canvas bags “were stronger, held more product, were reusable, and promoted a sense of awareness into a more sustainable use of resources.”

The selectmen plan to discuss the proposal at their meeting Thursday, Feb. 7, at 7:30 p.m. in the town hall Meeting Room.

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