Brad Braddon, general manager of technology for Tekni-Plex, which manufactures plastic containers.
A proposal to ban single-use plastic bags and curtail the use of plastic straws in Vermont is poised for a vote this week in the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee.
Industry groups and a lobbyist for movie theaters voiced opposition to the proposal Wednesday, arguing that such a law would do more harm than good for the environment and human health.
Students and environmentalists, on the other hand, said the bill, S.113, represents the first step in tackling Vermont’s share of the global plastic waste problem, which is fueled by disposable products that decompose slowly.
The proposal doesn’t ban other single-use containers such as takeout boxes and coffee cups but calls for a study committee to look into the consequences of banning those items.
Instead of a full ban on straws, the committee opted to propose a “by request” policy, meaning establishments would provide a straw if a customer asked, not by default.
Sen. Mark MacDonald (D-Orange), a member of the committee, said that Vermont’s effort to deal with plastic waste must be more than a symbolic gesture.
“This is like global warming. We can put together working groups and then set deadlines and pat ourselves on the back” without ever meeting state goals, he said. “So whatever step we take should be a real one.”
Brad Braddon, the general manager of technology for a Pennsylvania plastic company called Tekni-Plex, brought a variety of containers to the committee Wednesday to demonstrate why, in his view, a wider ban would be counterproductive.
Comparing a Styrofoam cup to a soup cup made of coated paper, Braddon said the latter contains significantly more plastic in its coating than the entire Styrofoam cup. He also held up two jars with water in them. Floating in one of them was a piece of pink Styrofoam egg carton. In the other jar was a murky brownish liquid with chunks of what looked like wet paper in them. That jar, he said, contained a piece of a paper-based milk carton.
Braddon said a person picking up garbage on the side of a road could more easily clean up discarded Styrofoam because it stays in one piece.
Philip Rozenski spoke on behalf of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, an organization funded by the plastic industry. He said banning plastic bags is a bad idea because reusable grocery bags, which are often made of plastic, would eventually end up in the garbage. Because those bags use more plastic than a single-use bag, Rozenski said the ban would actually lead to more plastic waste.
Matt McMahon, a lobbyist for MacLean, Meehan & Rice, spoke on behalf of an association of New England movie theaters, including cinemas in Vermont. He said banning plastic straws was a matter of safety for moviegoers. McMahon alluded to a scenario in which a strawless patron would be more likely to spill his or her drink in a theater.
“It’s dark, you have a flight of stairs usually to get up to your seat. That in itself poses an issue for owners because [a straw ban] can lead to, first of all, messes, but also a slip and a fall in the dark,” he said.
Sen. Brian Campion (D-Bennington) said the policy would “cut down dramatically” plastic straw use without making life more difficult for people with disabilities who may need a straw in order to drink.
Manchester fifth-grader Malayla Green and a classmate testified before the committee and said they have been studying the environmental effects of plastic straws.
“If we don’t ban these now, plastic bags will still be around by the time our great-great grandkids die,” Green said. “Plastic will still be in the ocean, it’ll still be all over our land if we don’t do anything. But if we do, we can stop that.”
Green said the Manchester Selectboard wasn’t receptive to the idea when students called for a plastic bag ban but said she plans to keep advocating for the issue at the local level.
On Town Meeting Day, voters in Manchester, Middlebury and Burlington all resoundingly approved measures to ban single-use plastic bags. All of the articles were advisory, meaning officials in each town are not required to act.
Sen. John Rodgers (D-Essex/Orleans) spent much of Wednesday morning’s meeting deflecting attention from plastics. When Green’s testimony was finished, he asked if she had a cell phone and then went on to explain — as he had to previous witnesses — that cell phones use “rare Earth materials.” He explained that mining such materials does major damage to the environment and suggested Green’s class look into that issue.
Rodgers also expressed concern that if a study committee were to spend the summer investigating the potential for an expanded plastics ban, it might be a “waste of taxpayer money” because the legislature would likely duplicate that work in considering such a proposal next year.
Sen. Corey Parent (R-Franklin) expressed concern that the committee could end up “looking penny wise, pound foolish on the life cycle” of plastics if industry lobbyists were correct that a ban could actually increase the amount of plastic in the waste stream.
But Randolph environmentalist Judith Augsberg enthusiastically endorsed the ban, saying that the committee’s scaled back proposal — focused only on plastic bags and straws at first, with additional study — is a must-pass.
“If we can’t move on such tangible, reasonable solutions that we all kind of agree on,” she said, “I just don’t see any hope for what’s coming down the pike with the … much huger issue of global warming.”