Vermont legislators have raised the bar when it comes to regulating the scourge of single-use plastics. S.113 – the single-use plastics bill – with overwhelming legislative support was sent to Gov. Phil Scott Wednesday. It takes aim at plastic bags, straws, drink stirrers and expanded polystyrene.
“Single-use plastics like bags, cups, containers and straws are a kind of pollution like we’ve never seen before,” said Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. “They’re used for ten or fifteen minutes and then they pollute our environment for 500 years or more. Vermont legislators deserve credit for listening to their constituents and passing the toughest statewide restrictions yet on these throwaway plastics.”
Vermont lawmakers expressed concerns about the growing threat posed by single-use plastics. Global plastic production is increasing so rapidly that more plastic has been produced in just the last 15 years than in all previous years combined.
Much of the plastic is used just once for only a few minutes and then thrown away or otherwise discarded into the environment. Since plastic does not biodegrade, it can last for hundreds of years in a landfill or as litter in the natural environment.
Plastic can eventually break down into tiny bits called microplastic, where it causes other, less visible threats. For instance, microplastics have been found in Lake Champlain, in tap water around the world, in 90% of bottled water, in sea salt, beer, and in fish, shellfish and other forms of wildlife. Hundreds of thousands of birds and marine animals die each year because of discarded plastics.
“With the dramatic increase we’re seeing in single-use plastic pollution in Vermont and across the planet, legislation like S.113 is a critical step in starting to turn the tide on the widespread use of these harmful products,” added Lauren Hierl, executive director of Vermont Conservation Voters. “We’re pleased to see the strong tripartisan support in the Vermont Legislature for starting to tackle this immense challenge.”
Though plastics have been around for more than a century, widespread production increased dramatically after World War II. Over nine billion tons of plastic have been produced since then, and less than ten percent of that has been recycled.
“Single-use plastics are a toxic blight on our environment,” said Jen Duggan, Vice President and Director of CLF Vermont. “These materials begin as dirty fossil fuels, expose us to harmful chemicals, and end up as litter in our waterways. We can’t recycle our way out of this problem. We must eliminate the use of single-use plastics altogether, and this bill is an important step forward in protecting Vermont communities and the environment from dangerous plastic pollution.”
S.113 is designed to ban the distribution of plastic bags, plastic drink stirrers, and expanded polystyrene food service products. It would also make straws available only upon request. More specific highlights of the legislation include:
- Plastic Bags
S.113 prohibits stores or food establishments from providing single-use plastic carryout bags to customers. This ban essentially applies to any carryout bag that is made of plastic and does not have stitched handles. Lawmakers were intentional about wanting to improve upon legislation elsewhere that allows the plastic bag industry to skirt bag bans by simply making thicker plastic bags. To further encourage the use of reusable bags, the Vermont bill also requires stores to charge 10 cents for every paper bag provided to a customer. Small paper bags would be exempt from this charge.
- Plastic Straws
S.113 prohibits establishments from automatically putting a plastic straw in their customers’ drinks. Instead, the bill allows for straws (not necessarily plastic) to be provided to customers upon request. Certain medical facilities are exempt from this restriction on plastic straws.
- Plastic Stirrers
The bill bans single-use plastic stirrers entirely.
- Expanded Polystyrene
No person will be allowed to sell expanded polystyrene (EPS) food service products or sell food or beverages in those same products under S.113. However, the law would not prohibit a person from storing or packaging a food or beverage in an EPS food service product for distribution out of state.
“Plastic pollution threatens not only the ocean, but also fresh water sources like Lake Champlain. The Vermont State Legislature now leads the nation in passing the most comprehensive plastics reduction bill in one fell swoop. This is good for public health, the Vermont tourist economy and the environment. Our great hope is that the Governor signs this bill into law,” said Judith Enck, founder of Beyond Plastics at Bennington College.
Vermont could become the second state to ban expanded polystyrene food service products such as cups, plates and containers. Maine recently became the first state to ban expanded polystyrene. More than 200 cities and counties around the country have also banned or otherwise restricted the use of expanded polystyrene food and beverage containers.
Expanded polystyrene foam contains styrene, a chemical linked to cancer, vision and hearing loss, impaired memory and concentration, and nervous system effects. Expanded polystyrene also breaks down into small particles that are widely dispersed in the environment due to its light weight. In a recycling facility, these smaller bits end up contaminating valuable recyclables.
Two states, California and New York, have passed legislation to ban single-use plastic bags. Hawaii’s populated counties have also banned plastic bags.
In Vermont, many restaurants and bars have already moved away from the practice of placing a straw in their customers’ beverages as a matter of course. For its part, iconic Vermont brand Ben & Jerry’s announced plans earlier this year to eliminate the use of plastic straws and other single-use plastics in its 600 Scoop Shops worldwide.
If Gov. Scott signs the bill as expected, Vermont will be the first state to take action on each of the plastic problems addressed in S.113: bags, straws, stirrers and expanded polystyrene.
“This legislation represents a huge victory for public health, wildlife and our environment over plastic pollution. It sets a new standard for state action, but we would not be disappointed if other states raise the bar even higher,” added Burns.
The legislation anticipates further action on plastics in Vermont. It establishes a diverse working group to come up with new recommendations for legislators by next year.
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