Our opinion: Resolution just a first step on plastic

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It's understandable that members of the Manchester Select Board, in contemplating the single-use plastic bag ban proposed by local advocacy group Earth Matters, are apparently of a mind to pass a resolution supporting the idea, but leave the lawmaking effort to the Legislature.

As select board vice chair Wayne Bell explained at last week's meeting, the board has spent a lot of time over the past two years rewriting ordinances, some of which changed due to changes in state law. It might make more sense to let the state, rather than spend the time and effort on writing and enforcing an ordinance only to have state law supersede it, Bell said.

So rather than moving forward on a ban mirroring the one passed and enacted in Brattleboro, the board sought a resolution calling on the Legislature to enact a state-wide ban. It's likely to take up that resolution on Tuesday night.

Please do not construe this as criticism of the board; in fact, a resolution, though non-binding, would represent a significant community statement about the importance of taking action on this environmental problem. We respect the board's concerns about the time and effort that would go into the task of writing an ordinance, and about the unanswered questions that must be addressed for such a bylaw to work — such as who would enforce it.

But we also lack confidence that the Legislature will ban single-use plastic bags anytime soon. That, in turn, leads us to believe the town should fill that leadership vacuum and act on its own.

There are two single-use plastic bag ban proposals before the House, H.88 and H.105. Both were introduced last year. Both were referred to the House Natural Resources, Fish & Wildlife Committee, and never returned from that committee.

The concern over single-use plastics is not new, and one would think the dispiriting photos and video footage of garbage in our oceans and on our beaches would have prompted the Legislature to act quickly and decisively when these bills were proposed. It showed no interest in doing so, which really begs the question "why not?"

It would be one thing if this was an exception to the rule when it came to the Legislature and the environment. But as you may recall, in May, the Legislature passed a clean water funding bill that contained no funding for cleaning up polluted waterways (which made it a fairly useless piece of legislation, but we digress). Gov. Phil Scott had pledged to veto the measure if it created new taxes or fees to fund such work, but the timidity shown by the Legislature — in an election year, no less — in failing to stand up for a clear environmental need makes us wonder if they'd stand up for a single-use bag ban.

It's true that passing through a plastic bag ban would take time and effort from the Select Board, and would require significant buy-in from the town's business community. It's not the kind of bylaw that the Select Board could, or would, rush to completion. It's true that Manchester would be on the hook for enforcing such a ban. And it's true that whatever Manchester accomplishes could be rendered moot by the Legislature. Those are all valid concerns.

But no one ever said doing the right thing was easy.

The resolution the Select Board has in mind is a positive start, and a welcome first step. But we think it's incumbent upon Manchester to show the way and be a leader on single-use plastic bags, and we hope that the board uses this resolution as a starting gate for such efforts, rather than a finish line.

Single-use plastic bags are problematic. They perpetuate the use of fossil fuels at a time when the need to curb our petroleum addiction is staring us in the face. They don't decompose or biodegrade. And they're difficult to recycle. So they wind up in landfills, or the ocean, where they harm wildlife and find their way into the food chain.

We can and should do better.

If a significant retail and economic hub such as Manchester can make this work — and it can — then other communities in Vermont, and perhaps the state itself, will follow suit.


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