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EcoWise: How One Town (Rye) Banned the Bags

A major goal of EcoPel is to reduce, and possibly eliminate, the use of plastic shopping bags in Pelham. Sensitive to the practical issues involved, EcoWise reached out to Sara Goddard, chair of the Rye Sustainability Committee (RSC), to better understand the implementation and impact of Rye’s plastic bag ban, which was voted into law by its City Council in 2011. What follows is our interview with Sara.

What are the provisions of Rye’s bag ordinance?

The ordinance applies only to retail plastic shopping bags at the point of sale, not such items as small bags used for fruits and vegetables or plastic bags used in the home. Merchants had a six-month window to deplete their inventory, upon which time they had to switch to alternatives, such as recyclable paper bags or reusable cloth bags. There was no cost to residents, and RSC’s research in other bag-ban communities before the law was enacted showed that no businesses suffered financially as a consequence of the new legislation.

 How did the idea first come up?

 We’d just formed the RSC and were discussing new projects. This was the first. I did a Google search and up pops this article about Westport (CT) having passed a reusable bag law. I emailed Jonathan Cunitz, one of the legislators who spearheaded the effort. He agreed to meet and give us an overview of what was required.

Cunitz told us it was important to listen to and ultimately address the concerns of three groups — businesses, residents and the City Council. Another important element was that the RSC did all of the organization and preparation. By the time we went to the Council for public hearings, we’d done our homework.

What concerns did people have?

The biggest concern was from local businesses, which have slim margins and worry about costs. A few came to us and said, “If we are forced to get rid of plastic bags, we’ll have to do paper bags and that’s more expensive.” They also worried that if it was an inconvenience for customers, they would go elsewhere.

Residents were not as concerned. But some, including the elderly, wondered how they would pick up dog poop and line garbage cans.

How did you address the concerns?

We called business owners and government officials in communities across the country that implemented bans. Not one said it was a problem. We summarized those interviews and visited local businesses to hand out the summary. We also asked the Chamber of Commerce to distribute a digital version.

We also had a huge letter-writing campaign that really gained strength once we screened the anti-disposables documentary Bag It. It was critical that we worked with the community in a spirit of collaboration.

How have consumers and merchants reacted since the ban? 

We spent six months on an education campaign before the law was enacted. It helped ease the transition. On rare occasion, we’ll hear of a business owner who has been using plastic bags, but once notified they’ve stopped. No one has ever been fined.

Has there been any discernable financial impact on the stores?

We haven’t heard of any business that has closed its doors as a direct result of the ordinance. CVS started handing out bags that were supposedly compostable. A resident wrote to CVS corporate about it, and at some point CVS reverted to paper. At the end of the day, it’s about adapting the concept of shoppers having four or five reusable bags available to get away from the disposable culture.

Any noticeable impact on the environment?

We have not measured it, and we probably should. Anecdotally, I don’t see as many plastic bags around. When you see someone carrying one, it looks jarring.

What advice would you give to other communities looking to explore a plastic bag ban?

You have to know your town really well. The reason we were able to do it is we listened to community concerns, and we worked with all groups to educate and assuage potential fears. We didn’t try to jam it through, and we knew where to seek help and support. You also have to be organized and prepared to work hard.