standing Westerly Town Hall

WESTERLY — Community members are being asked to take a survey intended to gauge their thoughts on single-use plastic items such as bags, straws and foam containers, and possible restrictions on the availability of such items. The survey was developed by the local Joint Committee on Plastics Utilization and Commerce.

Meeting since mid-December, the ad-hoc committee was asked to develop recommendations for potential town ordinances to regulate the availability and use of plastic bags, balloons and other items. The survey, which was posted on Feb. 20, can be found through the town website and is available at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/R8NK2HS. It will be available through the end of the day on Monday. Paper copies of the survey are available at the Westerly Library, and can be completed and left at the library,  where committee members will retrieve them.

The survey is intended to help meet the Town Council's request that the committee seek public input.

The Town Council established the committee in September, after a summer filled with complaints about littering at the beach. A grass-roots organization, Misquamicut Waste Warriors, was formed to clean trash discarded by beachgoers. The group communicated with former Town Councilor Jean Gagnier about the abundance of plastic bags they were finding in the beach area. Gagnier, who had previously asked the council to consider a discussion of way to curtail the use of plastic bags, requested that the issue be moved up from the council's backlog of potential agenda items.

Theresa Cavalier, committee chairwoman, suggested that families take the survey together as a means to stimulate conversation. "For the adults to learn what is being taught in school and then to perhaps encourage change within the household," Cavalier said.

The committee hopes to present its recommendations to the Town Council during its March 18 meeting. Cavalier, in an interview on Tuesday, said the committee has agreed to make recommendations "to help bring the town of Westerly to par with other towns in Rhode Island in terms of mandates about reduction of unnecessary single-use plastic waste."

The committee will also likely recommend that the council establish a permanent committee to help with a public education campaign aimed at teaching about the hazards that plastic poses to the environment, ways to reduce the use of single-use plastic, and reduction efforts in other parts of the country and the world. "Education plays a role in terms of implementation and adoption of the shift in behaviors," Cavalier said.

The committee's recommendations will likely also include a proposed timeline for phasing in restrictions and "layering in alternatives for consumers and business owners," Cavalier said. As businesses move  away from the use of single-use plastic and plastic foam containers, the cost of alternatives should drop, she said.

"If we increase the demand for more environmentally sound alternatives, then these suppliers need to shift what they carry in order to meet that demand, and if you have more businesses buying from that supplier you have a bulk cost savings that will eventually happen," Cavalier said.

When it started its work, Cavalier said, not all of the ad-hoc committee members believed restrictions were needed. "Every person on the committee has been imperative to the movement and momentum and development of recommendations ... there were some people on the committee who were not sure at first, but now I think we're all on the same page," she said.

Part of the committee's work involved studying proposals in Stonington, and ordinances in Rhode Island towns, Cavalier said.

When she lived in San Diego and San Francisco, Cavalier said, she became used to individuals making their own decisions to avoid the use of single-use plastics by carrying their own water containers or bringing their own mug to coffee shops. "It's done for the greater health of society," she said. "I think that is what people should focus on, it's an opportunity as opposed to the fear of someone telling them what to do."

dfaulkner@thewesterlysun.com

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