HAMILTON -- Hamilton residents will be saying goodbye to plastic bags and styrofoam containers, as Town Meeting voted in favor of a proposal to ban the materials Saturday.
The proposal, presented by the Board of Health and advocated for by the town recycling committee, is aimed at reducing environmental damage and health risks caused by styrofoam and plastic bags made of polyethylene.
Susan Wilfahrt, a member of the Board of Health, launched the debate by outlining -- in a speech and with slides -- the negative impacts of the materials.
Wilfahrt said that plastic bags don't get recycled as frequently as other materials. When they do, they jam machinery, end up in landfills or get burned, releasing toxins into the air. She showed pictures of animals entangled in plastic bags and animals that had died because of plastics building up in their stomachs. Wilfahrt explained that the materials are particularly hazardous because they are not biodegradable. Plastics break down into microplastics that bind with toxic chemicals including DDTs and PCBs, which then get consumed by fish. She said that the toxicity of the micro-plastics increases further down the food chain, as big fish eat the other fish, and eventually humans consume them.
Wilfahrt said the Board of Health had received support from all 30 businesses they interviewed about the ban -- including one store owner who was initially hesitant but then expressed agreement.
But that didn't stop some citizens from arguing against the proposal.
Bill Bowler, of Essex Street, spoke about freedom of choice.
"They say they spoke to merchants, but if we customers didn't want plastic bags, then businesses would have looked for other options by now," said Bowler.
"It's not paper vs. plastic; it's reusable bags vs. one-time use," said Lindle Willnow, another member of the Board of Health, in response to Bowler's concerns. Regarding cost, Willnow noted that if people use their own reusable bags, costs will be reduced for businesses.
"I'd love for plastic to be out of waste streams, but I'm bothered by the fact that our town decided to pass laws with punishments instead of taking the time and effort to teach people about it," said town resident Virginia Cookson, of Forest Street. "They need to educate, not legislate." She said that it felt like the Board of Health was telling the community what to do, treating them like children.
Gretel Clark, of the town recycling committee, insisted that the ban was to protect everyone. She said that even though the town may have only a small impact, Hamilton's enacting a ban may contribute to accomplishing a state-wide ban.
"We can say 'educate' but [change] doesn't happen until you pass laws," Clark concluded. "You have to do it through legal action."
Now that it has been approved by community members, Wilfahrt said the proposal will be reviewed by the state, and if approved, businesses will have a year to phase out the banned materials.
All of the other articles on the warrant were approved except for a proposal to have the authority for Site Plan Review shifted from the Zoning Board of Appeals to the Planning Board.
People spoke in support of the proposal, but those who were opposed felt it should be something that is addressed after the zoning bylaws are reviewed and rewritten -- a process for which the voters had earlier approved $50,000.
The vote for the shift in authority was favored by 69 people and opposed by 43, short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass.
Other topics that sparked debate before ultimately being approved included an item in the community preservation committee budget requesting $3,525 to restore a sign on the Hamilton Senior Center (the amount gave people pause), an article (4-2) suggesting prohibiting people from discharging water onto the public way-- the vote came down to one person, 46-45 votes--and an amendment to a senior housing zoning by-law.