Vermont House Passes 'Toughest' Bill In Country Aimed At Plastic Pollution

May 11, 2019

A bill that would put Vermont in the vanguard of states trying to restrict plastic pollution awaits final action in Montpelier.

The legislation bans single-use plastic bags starting July of next year. The bill also bans polystyrene take-out food containers and says restaurants cannot provide plastic straws unless requested.

The Vermont Public Interest Research Group hailed the Vermont bill as the strongest of its kind in the nation.

Maine also recently banned single use food containers made from polystyrene – commonly known as Styrofoam. But VPIRG Executive Director Paul Burns said the Vermont bill takes aim at three common sources of plastic garbage: bags, food containers, and straws.

“No state has passed a law dealing with all three elements,” Burns said. “We call those kind of the trifecta of single-use plastic pollution.  And ours also has some of the toughest standards as we define those products. So it would be the greatest single law in the country to really address this problem of single-use plastic pollution.”

"It would be the greatest single law in the country to really address this problem of single-use plastic pollution." - Paul Burns, VPIRG

The House gave final approval to the measure Friday, after a rancorous debate the day before. Opponents raised numerous objections over several hours, but in the end only mustered 20 votes against 124 in favor. The Senate already passed the bill. It could agree to the changes the House made, or send the measure to a conference committee.  

Colchester Republican Pat Brennan spoke for those who questioned how far Vermont needed to go to tackle a global problem. He said a study ordered in the bill could soon lead to additional bans on other plastic products. He predicted that someday a Vermonter would go to a county fair and order “a sloppy dish of whatever.” But if they ask for a fork, Brennan said they’ll be turned away.

“Somebody looks at them and says a fork? We can’t do that, I’m sorry,” he said.

"As far as I can see this is just ... another little jab to small business and large ones as well, to put the sign up, in neon this time, saying 'we're not open for business here in Vermont.'" - Colchester Rep. Pat Brennan

Brennan, who used to run a convenience store, said the bag ban represents one more blow against small business.

“We continually lament about not attracting new businesses to Vermont,” he said. “And as far as I can see this is just another step toward – another little jab – to small business and large ones as well, to put the sign up, in neon this time, saying we’re not open for business here in Vermont.”

Supporters said the movement to ban the bags started at the grassroots, particularly among younger constituents. Hinesburg Democrat Bill Lippert said he met with young Vermonters who are impatient for lawmakers to take action.

“This is like so expected of us, this is not cutting edge," he said. "Young people are looking at us and saying: ‘why is this taking so long?’ And if they're listening to this debate, we should be embarrassed, because this is so taken for granted. Let’s get this done."

"Young people are looking at us and saying: 'why is this taking so long?' And if they're listening to this debate, we should be embarrassed, because this is so taken for granted. Let's get this done." - Hinesburg Rep. Bill Lippert

Burlington Progressive Democrat Brian Cina said plastic pollution is not just fouling the world’s oceans. He recounted sailing trips on Lake Champlain to visit islands with nesting birds. He occasionally encountered dead birds, he said.

“And something I observed with my own eyes while visiting these islands was that in every single decomposing bird’s corpse, there was plastic,” he said. “It was very sobering to see this direct connection between our human behavior and the experience of other life on this planet.”

The action in the legislature builds on momentum growing in communities around Vermont. A bag ban in Brattleboro went into effect last year. In November, Montpelier voters asked for a charter change to prohibit the bags. On Town Meeting Day in March, Manchester, Middlebury and Burlington voters all passed advisory measures calling for the ban.

The House bill must now be reconciled with the Senate version that also passed overwhelmingly. One key difference is that the Senate version specified the thickness of the plastic in bags that would be banned at 2.25 millimeters – or about .088 of an inch. The House bill does not set a number but only refers to “single-use” bags, meaning they are only used once by the retailer.

Paul Burns of VPIRG said the House version is more restrictive. He said the industry is likely to offer slightly thicker “single-use” bags if the size limit in the Senate version prevails.

“It just means the market will be flooded by thicker plastic bags that are, for all intents and purposes, just single-use plastic bags,” he said. “So you’ve really just made the problem worse. People are still getting plastic bags at the checkout. They’re just thicker.”

Gov. Phil Scott indicated at his weekly news conference that he is not opposed to the legislation, but that he wanted to check with the state’s retailers. The Vermont Retail & Grocers Association has said it prefers a statewide approach over varying bag bans passed by towns.