WESTPORT — Passage of groundbreaking legislation requires the gathering of the right people, timing and fate. The story of how Westport, 10 years ago this month, became the first town east of the Mississippi River to enact a plastic bag ban is no exception.
The idea to ban single-use plastic bags in town began in 2007, when resident Mel Sorcher read about San Francisco’s passage of a ban on nonbiodegradable plastic bags and thought Westport should pass similar legislation.
“I went to see our first selectman about it. He and his staff were not initially supportive, so I asked a friend, Don Wergeles, if we would work on a plan with me,” Sorcher wrote in a 2015 letter to the state Legislature, in reference to then-Westport First Selectman Gordon Joseloff.
Next, Sorcher contacted the San Francisco mayor’s office to inquire about its ban. The person in charge of of the city’s ban happened to be a Staples High School graduate, who helped Sorcher develop a plan for Westport to ban plastic bags.
“We initiated several meetings with town administrators, but we weren’t getting anywhere. It was clear we needed to get ‘insiders’ in town government to get involved with this, so we contacted Liz Milwe, my elected representative in Westport town government. She agreed to help and eventually asked three other elected town representatives to join our effort,” Sorcher wrote.
As it happens, a few weeks before Sorcher contacted Milwe, then a member of Westport’s Representative Town Meeting from District 4, Milwe had met with her fellow elected RTM members following the November 2007 elections. The group included Jeff Wieser, Jonathan Cunitz, Gene Seidman and Milwe. According to Wieser, Milwe told members she was tired of just approving things on the RTM and never accomplishing any new legislation within the body itself.
When Sorcher proposed the plastic bag ban to Milwe, she brought it to the other District 4 members.
Fish mistake plastic bags for food and eat the bags, whose chemicals poison the animals and often cause them to die, Milwe said.
“We just decided what the heck, this would be a project where we could actually get something done,” Wieser said.
In many ways, the District 4 members were a perfect team for the challenge of passing what later became the Retail Checkout Bags ordinance because of the diverse backgrounds of each member, Wieser said.
A trained choreographer and native of Westport’s environmental organizing community, Milwe rallied grass-roots support for the ordinance and gathered research from San Francisco and communities around the world who banned plastic bags.
Seidman, who has a background in graphic art and marketing, worked alongside Milwe in talking to residents about the ban and designing a public relations campaign in favor of the ordinance. Both Wieser, a 30-year veteran of the international banking sector, and Siedman convinced other RTM members to vote for the ordinance.
Wieser, a numbers guy according to Milwe, also quantified the effect of Westport’s plastic bag usage and helped adapt San Francisco’s ordinance for Westport, though the ordinance’s writing was largely done by Cunitz, a consultant.
On the night of the vote at the Sept. 2, 2008, RTM meeting, representatives of the American Chemical Council spoke against the ban, but residents didn’t like an outside group meddling in town affairs, Milwe said.
“It was actually relatively simple. The audience was pretty full. A lot of people spoke in favor of it. There was not a lot of opposition,” Wieser said.
Just minutes before midnight, the vote was called.
“The vote approving the ban was overwhelming in favor. The entire auditorium erupted in applause and cheers. It was the kind of thing that happens in a feel-good-movie,” Sorcher wrote. The final vote was 26 in favor, 5 opposed, and one abstention.
In March 2009, the ban was implemented and the town held a reusable bag design contest, Milwe said.
Organizations and political candidates caught on to people’s need for reusable bags and passed them out as goodie bags at events that first year after the ban, current First Selectman Jim Marpe said.
If the average Westport household uses six less plastic bags a week as a result of the ordinance, the town has prevented 30 million plastic bags from entering the waste stream over the last 10 years, Wieser estimates. “That’s something to be proud of.”
Despite the success of Westport’s ordinance, few other nearby towns have followed in its lead.
“We thought it would spread like wildfire, but in every town we talked to, it’s been hard for people to accept the concept, Wieser said. “It’s gone such a short distance in the last 10 years. It’s sort of surprising.”
Many locally owned grocery stores lobby against bans for fear they will increase expenses and make it harder to compete with big chains, Wieser said, noting the political power of Stew Leonard’s in preventing implementation of a plastic bag ban in Norwalk.
However, the tides may be turning in favor of more plastic bag bans, Milwe said, pointing to the plastic bag ban passed by Greenwich in March and the over 14 Connecticut towns now working to pass similar bans.
“It took a long time for other towns to do it because everyone was waiting for the state to do something, and they’re just not doing it,” Milwe said.
Milwe and Wieser frequently speak to groups in other towns hoping to pass a plastic bag ban. In 2008, Milwe and her husband, Peter Wormser, created an organization called In the Bag and a congruent traveling art show composed of reusable bags made by women from around the world. The exhibit has been shown at the United Nations in both Nairobi and Geneva, was featured at the Boston Children’s Museum, and is now displayed at the Newtown Municipal Center through Sept. 28.
Back in Westport, Milwe said she is proud RTM member Andrew Colabella is now spearheading the passage of an ordinance to limit plastic straw use in town, which she views as a natural progression from the plastic bag ban a decade before.
“We’re all looking and understanding that we have to change our habits to have a healthy environment,” Milwe said.
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