By Guy Page
According to S.113, approved by the 2019 Legislature and now awaiting approval on Gov. Phil Scott’s desk, the statewide ban on point-of-sale plastic bags, straws and coffee stirrers will take effect July 1, 2020. But the Legislature is thinking ahead. Unless Gov. Scott vetoes S.113, a working group created by the bill will promptly select the next targets on the state of Vermont’s war on plastic.
This war is — as both the bill itself and a key supporter states — also part of the greater war on climate change.
Appearing on WDEV’s The Dave Gram Show Wednesday, Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG), described which products S,113 would cover and which it wouldn’t — at least for now.
“It applies only to carry out bags, the bags you get at the checkout line,” Burns told host Gram, who this week returned to the microphone after a lengthy illness. “In a produce aisle … those plastic bags [to hold asparagus, for example] will — for now — be permissible. There’s no restriction on those at this point.” And that plastic bag or container for your cheese, fish or chicken? It’s safe too — for now.
“This is a first cut,” Burns said. “The law creates a working group to look at where do we go next. … We hope it will come up with a lot of good ideas, too.”
If the proposed working group (pg. 8, section 3) suffers from a lack of ideas, S.113 provides specific direction: items identified for consideration include “disposable plastic food service ware” like plates, cups and utensils; plastic film; and single-use printed materials including (oddly enough) telephone books but also possibly covering store sale flyers.
Single-use plastics permitted to remain should become more expensive, S.113 recommends. It suggests the working group consider a policy of “extended producer responsibility” for a producer of a product to “provide for and finance the collection, transportation, reuse, recycling, processing, and final management of the product.” Climate change also must be considered. The group should consider “a financial incentive for manufacturers, distributors, or brand owners of single-use products to minimize the environmental impacts of the products in Vermont. The environmental impacts considered shall include review of the effect on climate change of the production, use, transport, and recovery of single-use products.”
The bill does not mention what Rep. Jim Harrison said during House floor debate on S.113 – that bulkier, heavier, tree-based paper bags require about seven times as many fossil-fuel burning truckloads to deliver an equivalent number of plastic bags.
During the radio show Wednesday, Burns observed that “these are petroleum-based products, so there are climate implications here, too.” When Gram wondered aloud if people will consider just how much oil is being used to make plastics when the next oil crisis shortage hits, Burns answered:
It’s a lot bigger than you might think. They say the petroleum industry is actually counting on the continued expansion of the use of plastics as being an outlet for their product. It’s not just going into the gas tank. A lot of this petroleum material, some of it now derived from fracking of natural gas, is being used to make plastic.
Burns is correct about the significant oil/plastics connection. British Petroleum estimates that if the single-use plastic bans take hold worldwide, demand for oil could drop by two million barrels per day. Current demand is about 97 million barrels per day, with a peak/plateau of 110 million barrels per day expected by 2040, a BP economist said told the Guardian newspaper last year. About 15% of all petrochemicals are in the manufacture of single-use plastics.
Burns noted that the business and industry will be represented on the working group. Right again: of the 11 members, three will represent business and manufacturing interests. The other eight will represent state government, recyclers, solid waste districts, cities and towns, and “an environmental advocacy group located in the State that advocates for the reduction of solid waste and the protection of the environment.”
It is not clear which member, if any, would advocate for any free-speech concerns about banning printed materials such as phone books. Perhaps anticipating this concern, S.113 specifically exempts bound textbooks and literary and reference books. There is no mention of newspapers, which are often single-use items sold in retail stores.
S.113 calls for the group to meet for the first time by about July 1, deliver its report in December, and conclude its work by February.
Statehouse Headliners is intended primarily to educate, not advocate. It is e-mailed to an ever-growing list of interested Vermonters, public officials and media. Guy Page is affiliated with the Vermont Energy Partnership; the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare; and Physicians, Families and Friends for a Better Vermont.