EASTHAM — The select board sent two proposed bylaws banning plastic bottles and bags back to the conservation commission for revisions on Monday instead of placing them as articles on the warrant for the annual town meeting.
Both bylaws originated in last May’s town meeting, at which voters approved two petitioned articles banning single-use plastic bags and polystyrene. Two bylaws were then proposed: the Plastic Beverage Bylaw and the Plastic and Marine Hazards Reduction Bylaw.
The bottle bylaw would ban the sale or distribution of drinking water, whether carbonated or non-carbonated, and soft drinks in plastic bottles of 24 ounces or less (originally 34 ounces), as well as distilled spirits in 50 ml plastic bottles, or “nips.” “Soft drink” was defined as any beverage containing carbonated water, a sweetener (including fruit juice), or a flavoring.
The marine hazards bylaw proposes to phase out single-use plastic checkout bags by requiring establishments to replace them with reusable bags, recyclable bags, or compostable plastic bags. Originally, the bylaw would have required establishments to charge customers 10 cents per paper bag, but that provision has since been removed.
The bottle bylaw is particularly controversial among local business owners, who feel it places an undue hardship on them. In spite of their objections, they made it clear Monday that they supported ridding the environment of plastic. Some said they were in favor of a Cape-wide ban on plastic.
“This is a tough conversation for me because I’m a small business owner — I sell a lot of single-use beverages,” said Susan Knight, owner of Sam’s Deli. “I also hate plastic.”
Knight said she considered eliminating all plastic beverage bottles in her store on her own this summer but backed down. “It would be suicide — we just cannot do it,” she said. “The market is not ready; the consumers aren’t ready. But they’ll get there.”
More objections were raised at a public meeting on Jan. 29 led by Karen Strauss and Jim Baughman of the conservation commission and conservation agent Shana Brogan.
“I’m very threatened at this moment, as is my business,” said Sarah Wilcox, owner of the Eastham Superette.
Some argued that the bylaw would lead people to shop in Orleans or Wellfleet and then dispose of plastic bottles in Eastham.
“All that plastic on the beach is getting there because people take it out and they just leave it,” said Kevin Plumb, owner of Town Center Wine & Spirits in Eastham. “Has there been any consideration of more recycling bins at the beaches, signage encouraging people if you take it in, take it out, and throw it in the bin?”
Eleven Cape Cod towns now ban municipal (but not commercial) purchase of water in plastic bottles: Brewster, Chatham, Dennis, Eastham, Falmouth, Harwich, Orleans, Provincetown, Sandwich, Wellfleet, and Yarmouth. Seven towns in the state ban all single-serve water in plastic bottles: Concord, Sudbury, Lincoln, Great Barrington, Aquinnah, Chilmark, and West Tisbury. Three towns, all on Martha’s Vineyard, also ban carbonated soft drinks in plastic: Aquinnah, Chilmark, and West Tisbury.
Eastham’s proposed bottle bylaw, which would ban virtually all drinks bottled in plastic, is a comprehensive approach that would be the first of its kind in the state.
“To think that this is going to not affect our retailers, which are very fragile, is not looking at the whole picture,” said Jim Russo of the Eastham Chamber of Commerce.
Over 200,000 Nips
The ban on plastic nips alone would be a serious blow to the Superette and Wine & Spirits stores, the owners said. Wilcox said the two stores combined sold more than 200,000 nips last year.
Nips are an unusual case. Water and soft drinks can be sold in boxes or cans but nips come only in glass and plastic.
Plastic nip bottles don’t have a deposit. State Rep. Randy Hunt of Sandwich has filed a bill (H.2881) that would add a five-cent deposit on the sale of nips statewide.
A plastic nip bottle ban in the town of Chelsea led to a decline in nips littering the streets, according to a story in CommonWealth Magazine in August 2018. But the article also noted a different effect.
“Alcohol-related ambulance responses, which typically trigger police and fire calls as well, have declined dramatically in Chelsea since the advent of the nip ban,” the magazine reported.
The controversy may soon be moot. At the select board meeting, members discussed tabling the bottle bylaw because of two related bans that were also in the works.
The Brewster-based environmental action group Sustainable Practices hopes to put a petitioned article for a single-use plastic water bottle ban on all 15 Cape town meeting warrants this year. The group pushed a municipal ban last year that was adopted by 11 of 15 towns. The four towns that didn’t were Truro, Bourne, Mashpee, and Barnstable. Truro may place it on the warrant this year, said Madhavi Venkatesan, executive director of Sustainable Practices.
Sustainable Practices has confirmed that the petitioned article will appear on warrants in Provincetown, Wellfleet, Eastham, Orleans, Harwich, Brewster, and Chatham. The ban would apply to the sale of noncarbonated, unflavored drinking water in single-use plastic bottles of less than one gallon. Enforcement would begin Sept. 1, 2021.
Another Bylaw in the Bag
Though the select board sent the marine hazards bylaw, which bans plastic bags, back to the conservation commission, it is nevertheless leaning toward voting for the bag ban as written to go on the warrant. The commission had suggested focusing on bags with less than 3.5-mm-thick handles, but select board member Jamie Rivers said, “I think it makes sense to have no plastic bags.”
The commission had already made changes before the Jan. 29 public meeting. One dealt with dates: if either bylaw passes in May, it would become effective on Nov. 1, 2020, but penalties would be postponed until the end of November 2021. This would give businesses time to adjust to the new rules. Both bylaws need a two-thirds majority vote to be adopted at town meeting.
Ken Taber, owner of the Hole in One in Orleans and Eastham and Fairway Restaurant in Eastham, managed to lighten the mood at the select board meeting.
“Orleans went through this last year, folks,” Taber said. “We had to get rid of the Styrofoam cups, we had to get rid of the plastic bags, we had to get rid of everything that was polystyrene. It wasn’t a hardship. All I had to do was move whatever I had down to Eastham.”