Proponents viewed it as a small but important first step toward improving the environment.
Opponents viewed it as an unnecessary government intrusion that would limit personal choice.
The Darien Representative Town Meeting on Monday narrowly rejected a proposal to enact a town-wide ban on single-use plastic bags.
After nearly two hours of comments — and sometimes impassioned pleas — from RTM members, elected town leaders and residents, the town legislative body voted 46 to 36, with no abstentions, against the proposal, which grew out of a grass roots effort spearheaded by Darien environmental group "Choose to Reuse."
About two dozen Darien High School students attended the meeting in support of the measure, which altogether had been in the works in Darien for more than two years. Many of them had earlier signed a petition which had been circulated around town by "Choose to Reuse" in support of the proposal. As of Monday's meeting, the petition reportedly bore the signatures of more than 2,300 residents, about 600 of whom were high school students.
"I'm here with hundreds of signatures from Darien students who are taking a stand in support this ordinance," said DHS freshman Finley Wetmore, one of only two students to make it to the podium. "Every day thousands of single-use plastic shopping bags leave Darien grocery stores and chain pharmacies with customers. About 12 percent are recycled, some are thrown out — and [the rest] end up in trees, down storm drains, on the beach and in backyards like my own. These discarded bags are Darien's way of saying we don't care enough about the environment to just grab a reusable bag as we get out of the car."
Meanwhile members of "Choose to Reuse" had set up an informational booth, complete with a TV monitor for showing videos, in the hallway just outside the town hall auditorium, where they circulated "pro-ban" materials about plastic bags and recycling — as well as, of course, re-usable bags. The 137 pages of the petition were proudly hung on the walls and strung across the hallway for display — and some people were still signing it even as the meeting began. The group estimates that Darien residents use up to 6 million plastic bags per year — and aims to get those bags out of the solid waste stream by banning them completely.
"I have been told my whole life that making the right choice is not always easy," Wetmore said. "My teachers, parents, coaches, religious leaders and other adult mentors have told me that making a good and responsible choice can be hard. It can be inconvenient, it might take me out of my comfort zone and it could even challenge the status quo. I think this ordinance is one of those choices. Does it stretch some of us beyond our comfort zone? Possibly. Does it ask us to change our behavior? Maybe. Is it worth it? Absolutely. We are not just citizens of Darien we are citizens of the world — therefore it is our duty to preserve protect and love this earth."
A majority of Darien's lawmakers, however, were not swayed by the young residents' starry-eyed optimism.
"This is another ordinance that infers that we're not wise enough to make proper choices in our lives — and which hinges on personal freedoms," said RTM member Arden Broecking. "These days I rarely see people going into stores or supermarkets without reusable cloth bags. I have 22 of them and I store them in the car. They are readily available, inexpensive and encouraged in local markets. I believe a formal law to be unnecessary — and I think such a law might force local food prices up, among other things…"
RTM District 4 and Health and Public Safety Committee member Jim Cameron said while he "loves democracy" and completely appreciated the grass-roots effort that led to the ordinance coming before the RTM, "It's flawed — it has a false premise that we have a serious problem with plastic bags in this town."
"I am an environmentalist — I recycle everything that comes into my house," Cameron said. "I am as green as I think I can possibly be — but I am against this ordinance."
"Whether its 3 million or 4 million bags that get distributed in town each year, I think more than 22 percent of them get recycled, and those that don't get incinerated," Cameron said. "They are not flying around our streets and getting caught in the trees."
"If plastic bags are the problem then why are we proposing a ban on just one kind of bag?" Cameron asked rhetorically. "What about the plastic bags that come wrapped around my newspapers in the morning? What about the plastic bag that comes on my dry cleaning? If we had a problem with speeding in this town, we wouldn't just crack down on small beige vehicles, we would go after them all…"
Supporters of the proposal — which had also attracted the support of Citizens Campaign for the Environment (CCE) — cited examples of other area towns which have successfully enacted similar bans, including Westport, as well as New York towns Rye, Mamaroneck and South Hampton.
Chris Jobson of Jackson Place said when Westport implemented its ban on single-use plastic bags in 2008, "about 600,000 fewer plastic bags were issued in that town." He said since the ban was implemented four years ago "about 2 million fewer plastic bags have been used in Westport… and there's no reason the same can't be true here." What's more the store owners in the town have actually seen their operating costs reduced, as they no longer need to supply bags, he said.
"I value our freedom of choice as much as anybody," Jobson said. "But when convenience is an option our human nature will often get the better of us — people will grab that plastic bag."
"However if there is a rule out there — they will remember to bring that reusable bag — and it will have an impact on their behavior," he said.
Most RTM members, however, weren't drinking the proverbial plastic bag ban Kool-Aid.
"Darien does not have a plastic pollution problem," Cameron said. "The world has a pollution problem that this ordinance is not going to effect. This ordinance is not going to deal with the plastic gyre in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It's only going to make us feel like we've done something, when we really haven't."
Earlier in the meeting David Kahn, chairman of the RTM Public Works Committee, reviewed a lengthy study crafted by his committee that details how plastic bags are disposed or recycled. In order to track and see first-hand what happens to Darien's plastic bags as they move through the waste stream, Kahn and members of his committee earlier this year took tours of the Darien Transfer Station; the "Wheelabrator" waste to energy facility in Bridgeport; and the City Carting transfer station and recycling facility in Stamford.
Kahn said on Sept. 18 with 13 of 14 members present, the Public Works Committee rejected the proposal by a narrow 5-6 vote with two abstentions. His committee, however, unanimously approved sending the measure on to the full RTM for an up or down vote. The RTM Town Government Structure and Administration Committee also narrowly rejected the proposal 5-6; as did the Public Health and Safety Committee by a vote of 4-5.
Several ancillary recommendations grew out the Public Works Committee's study of the issue — one of which is that the dump "needs better signage" to tell residents where to put their plastic bags (the transfer station started recycling plastic bags in May, when the town implemented its single stream recycling program), Kahn said.
Kahn added that several committee members felt the issue was already being largely addressed through the new single stream recycling program, which significantly expands the range of materials that can be recycled and allows residents to mix them indiscriminately.
He added however, that even though the single stream recycling program has been in effect in Darien for several months now, "it's still very unclear to people what they can and cannot recycle."
Kahn said more education is needed in order to increase awareness and get residents to capitalize on the program, which brings in revenue for the town through the sale of single-stream materials to haulers, including Stamford's City Carting. He said currently Darien gets about $15 for every ton of single stream waste it sells to City Carting. The hauler, in turn, makes money from the waste by selling it to a company that extracts the recyclable materials. In addition City Carting benefits from the deal because it no longer has to pay tipping fees on the single stream waste, Kahn said.