At a public hearing this week, debate about the proposed ban on single-use plastic bags within the city of Westminster centered on how to balance helping the environment and preventing harm to small businesses.
At the close of the meeting, council members decided to keep the issue open for public feedback. They anticipate substantive changes to the wording of the draft of the ordinance, and they want to give the public time to view the changes and comment.
The next meeting of the Mayor and Common Council is May 13, the last for the sitting council before Westminster’s May 14 election. The terms for council members Mona Becker and Robert Wack are expiring, and Councilman Greg Pecoraro is running for re-election. Five other challengers are seeking council seats.
Several of the citizens who commented at the hearing were local businesspeople who asked the city to clarify in the new wording of the ordinance how the ban would affect small business.
Pecoraro, one of the co-sponsors of the legislation, said that striking a balance between environmental impact and not harming small business was important in the process.
“The goal is to go after the larger target,” he said.
Civilian speakers and council members discussed how best to define small business within the law.
Before the start of the public comment period, council member Tony Chiavacci suggested an exemption for businesses with fewer than 50 employees.
He said that from his research, small businesses were giving out 15-20 bags per day. Large chain stores might give out as many in one day as small establishments do in a year, he said.
Trash Free Maryland, which advocates for public policies to reduce trash pollution and litter, was represented at the hearing by Kim Lamphier, advocacy director for the group.
She said the organization would be willing to be in contact with city officials to help them craft their policy. They were in favor of an exemption process for small businesses because a policy purely based on employee numbers might also exempt chain convenience stores.
She said plastic bags can be dangerous for farm animals and cows have had to be put down after consuming plastic bag litter.
One request voiced by several business owners was to consider the cost change from plastic to paper bags.
Chiavacci had found in his research that paper bags are about eight times as expensive as single-use plastic.
Heather Cole, owner of Molli's Cafe in Westminster, said that the cost of more expensive paper products would be passed on to the customer through price changes, which agitates and upsets some.
Cole’s daughter Molli, who works as a legislative aid in the Maryland House of Delegates, said she had seen a similar ban work well in Chestertown where she had gone to college. But Molli wanted to make sure the burden wasn’t hurting bossiness owners who will already see effects from the raise in minimum wage and statewide ban on plastic foam containers passed during the recent legislative session.
Steve Colella, a business consultant with the America's Small Business Development Center of Maryland in Carroll County, said he supported the environmental aspect of the plan, but wanted to highlight that budgetary constraints for small businesses are much narrower than those on the outside realize. Colella is a candidate in this year’s council election.
Several citizens spoke plainly in favor of the ban because of its environmental benefit.
“Waiting a year is too long,” resident Bob Kennedy said.
County Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, whose district includes Westminster, spoke in support of the ordinance and said he hopes to see similar legislation at the state level.
Brooke Hagerty of The Food Chick in Westminster agreed that the focus should be on bag waste from chain stores. She expressed that personal responsibility was important and she always gives consumers the option whether to take a plastic bag with their carryout food.
Don West, one of the co-founders of WasteNot! Carroll, a local group focused on waste reduction and resource preservation, urged the council to pass the ordinance.
Holding a plastic bag he had picked up from the ground on the way to the meeting, he said the litter was a suffocation risk for children at parks and playgrounds. Carrying reusable bags in his vehicle was a cheap and easy solution, he said.
Pecoraro presented on some of the reasons why he and Becker, co-sponsor of the ordinance, believed the ban was important. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the average American family uses about 1,500 single-use plastic bags per year. Only about 1% of those are recycled. The rest becomes litter or landfill waste.
The plastic takes more than 500 years to degrade completely, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. As it does, it breaks down into tiny particles called microplastics that can further pollute the environment.
Wack, the council president, commented that research is still being done on microplastics’ effects on humans. The particles spread into soil, water, and the atmosphere and are unavoidable, he said.
Pecoraro said the council wants to give a long lead time on implementing the ordinance. It would not go into effect until the summer of 2020.
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The city also received feedback through email and Facebook prior to the public hearing.