It’s official, Chestertown has said goodbye to plastic bags. At last night’s town meeting the Mayor and Council voted 3-2 to pass Ordinance 01-2011. Mayor Margo Bailey and Councilmen Jim Gatto and Gibson Anthony voted yay and Councilmembers Marty Stetson and Mabel Mumford-Pautz voted nay.
The revised ordinance would ban plastic checkout bags, commonly referred to as T-shirt bags, at retail establishments within town limits. Restaurant carry out bags would be allowed as well as dry cleaner garment bags and small bags found in grocery stores to carry produce, meats, and seafood. Paper bags would be allowed as long as they are recyclable. The requirement that paper bags have language stamped or printed on them declaring them recyclable has been removed.
Businesses would have nine months to get rid of their plastic bag supply before the ordinance takes effect, an increase from the original six month time line. Stores, employees, or owners found in violation could face a municipal fine of $100 to $200.
There was a lengthy discussion involving biodegradable bags. Biodegradable bags were originally exempt from the ordinance, until questions were raised about how effectively the bags biodegrade.
“The latest curveball is about biodegradable bags. Are they actually biodegradable?” asked Anthony.
John Seidel, director of Washington College’s Center for Environment and Society which provided research to the Mayor and Council about plastic bag ordinances, said there is no current scientific standard to measure the effectiveness of biodegradable bags. He made the suggestion that the Mayor and Council change the wording in the ordinance from biodegradable to compostable, something other towns and cities have done in their ordinances, because how compostable something is can be measured.
The Mayor, Anthony, and Gatto agreed to the change and to allow businesses who are currently using biodegradable bags 12 months to make the switch to compostable bags.
Mumford-Pautz questioned why more time couldn’t be given to all the businesses to make the switch from plastic to paper. The Mayor said the time frame for when the ordinance will take effect has been expanded from six to nine months.
“We’re going to have to make a decision and the businesses will step in line. We have discussed this for two years. I think it’s time to either step up and do it or not. We need to move on or not,” she said.
Even though 2½ hours was devoted to public comment at the March 21 meeting, the public was again given the chance to speak about the ordinance.
Cynthia McGinnes, who has a cousin who works for the parent company of SuperFresh, said that while she is in favor of helping the environment she was concerned about the impact the plastic bag ban would have on local jobs.
“Chestertown is exactly in the middle of the stores they are thinking about closing. If the ordinance passes my cousin said they (SuperFresh) will scapegoat you. When you make your vote tonight think of those 80 full time and part time jobs that will be gone by the end of 2011,” she said.
Gatto said that he too had talked to employees at SuperFresh and was told that Chestertown’s store is not on the target list. “Stores are closed based on economics, not on local politics.”
Jeff Green said the plastic bag issue is not a social problem, it’s a litter problem. “I think we should start teaching people to clean up after themselves.”
Ford Schumann said that even though Chestertown is small “most things start with small steps. I’m proud to be part of a community that is going to make an important small step.”
What the ban would mean for area businesses was a major concern for the council.
“I believe in protecting the environment … but my vote is going to be no. I would support a national or state ban, but it’s wrong for us as little Chestertown to ban plastic bags because we’re putting our stores at a competitive disadvantage. We don’t live in a bubble, people can go somewhere else to shop,” said Stetson.
While Anthony agreed people going somewhere else to shop has become somewhat of a tradition, banning plastic bags will not cause folks to start running to Dover, Del.
“What bothers me is that something that would cost us a quarter per trip will end up costing us more because of gas. I think if we set our minds to it we can fortify our shops. If (SuperFresh) pulls out they will scapegoat us, but they would have pulled out anyway. I guarantee you it will have nothing to do with plastic bags,” he said. “I do worry a lot about what (McGinnis) was saying. I wish our timing was different … but when you’re confronted with it and asked to say yes or no you have to make a decision.”
The future of Chestertown’s SuperFresh is much more perilous than some think, according to Mumford-Pautz. “The people in this store have told me they have been asked to take a week’s less vacation and less pay to try to save the store. I don’t care about Vermont, California or anywhere else. I care about Chestertown and if we lose this store it will be bad for the town,” she said.
Gatto said what the Council decides tonight won’t impact SuperFresh’s decision, economics will.
“Macro-economics are working against us for our grocery stores … we’re a remote area which means there are extra shipping costs. There is no guarantee that SuperFresh will close or remain open … there are more pieces to this than just our ban.”
When the Mayor called for the vote McGinnis walked out shaking her finger at the council saying “Shame on you.” The remaining audience members applauded the Mayor and Council’s decision.
After the vote was cast Anthony said the Mayor and Council should set up a meeting with the area business community to discuss the ban. “We need to make that a priority,” he said.
The Mayor and Council agreed. The next town meeting is Monday, April 25 at 7:30 p.m.