WESTERLY — With fewer than five months before a townwide ban on the distribution of single use plastic bags goes into effect, a group of volunteers is spreading the word through an education campaign aimed at residents and business owners.

In the weeks and months leading up to Jan. 1, when the prohibition begins, the Joint Committee on Plastics Utilization and Commerce has planned a film series, publicity in traditional and social media, and hopes to include a message with the municipal water bills that are mailed out to property owners. A BYOB (Bring Your Own Bag) effort started last month.

"We're working on the proactive pillars of citizen engagement and business engagement," said Theresa Cavalier, the committee's chairwoman.

The committee was established by the Town Council in October 2018. With only a $500 budget, the group must be creative and look for ways to enlist help rom residents and business owners, Cavalier said. The committee hopes that business owners will start their own education campaigns to let their customers know about the change. It is distributing flyers to selected local businesses, and Printing Plus, a Main Street business, is offering a discount to businesses that hire them to make items containing the bag ban message. "Businesses can use this to benefit their message and train employees to educate customers," Cavalier said.

A one hour documentary film series based at Westerly Library is intended to teach audiences about the threat plastic poses to the environment and as a reminder of the ban. Shortened versions of three films will be shown through December. Each showing of 45 minutes will be followed by a 15-minute question and answer session and the committee will give away reusable items such as bags and mugs.

Verde Birdie, a green goods shop in the Velvet Mill in Stonington, will sell reusable straws and other items in the library's Coy Cafe in conjunction with the film showings. Suzanne Harle, the owner of  Verde Birdie, donated the use of the films through her other business, Green Planet Films.

The film series will get underway Monday at 10 a.m. when "Bag It" will be shown in the library auditorium. The movie will be shown again at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday. The movie, as its protagonist Jeb Berrier recounts, addresses "a dirty little secret ... just because plastic is disposable doesn't  mean it just goes away. After all, where is away? There is no away."

The film series will continue with "Straws" at 10 a.m. on Sept. 23 and 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 25. "Trashed," the third film, will be shown on Oct. 28 at 10 a.m. and Oct 30 at 5:30 p.m. The series will wrap up with the re-running of "Bag It" on Dec 16 at 10 a.m. and Dec. 18 at 5:30 p.m.

"Trashed" follows actor Jeremy Irons as he investigates the global scale and effect of consumerism and pollution. "Straws" is a 33-minute documentary about straws and other plastic that pollutes oceans and harms marine life and other ecosystems.

The committee hopes to see a broad spectrum of residents, town officials and business owners at the films.

"My hope is that the town councilors will attend these movies and then once they understand and once they start to care then perhaps we'll have more support," Cavalier said

The committee hopes to request — after the "Straws" film is shown — that the Town Council will reconsider a proposed ordinance that would require businesses to hold off on distributing plastic straws until asked by customers. The council decided to focus, initially, on plastic bags when it first approved the ban in April, but suggested it would return to the proposed straws ordinance in the future.

Cavalier noted that neighboring Stonington approved a single ordinance that will ban single use plastic bags and implement a request-only plastic straw approach. She also pointed to the results of a survey conducted by the committee earlier this year that showed strong support for a straws ordinance in Westerly as well as limits on balloons and foam packaging.

"It's a very simple ordinance, it's just saying to not have excessive straws," Cavalier said.

Some Westerly restaurants have already implemented a voluntary straws policy, Cavalier said. She also noted that Town Manager J. Mark Rooney recently had water bottle fill stations installed at the water fountains in Town Hall, a move intended to encourage town employees to reduce their use of disposable plastic bottles. Similarly, she said that Teens Against Pollution, a group of young people who meet at Westerly Library, conducted a climate change strike on the sidewalk outside of the library in March.

"We hope somehow that’s part of the wave or ripple effect ... I think it's really important because the town will be enforcing this and we hope that the town councilors will embrace that as well," Cavalier said.

The Bring Your Own Bag campaign included screen blurbs before movie showings by the Misquamicut Business Association and the United Theatre. A BYOB logo is being shared on Facebook and the committee is looking for residents and businesses to pick it up and share it on their social media pages.

An education session to be held at the Senior Citizens Center is also in the works and the committee plans to ask business groups to send informational flyers to their members. The committee is also working on establishing a leave-a-bag take-a-bag bin at the Westerly Library as a way to make reusable bags available to people who don't have any.

The education campaign seeks "to have people understand why. Why is this important? Why should they care? Why should they sacrifice their perceived convenience?" Cavalier said.

With three vacancies the committee is looking for new members. Information on applying to municipal boards and committees is available on the town's website or by calling the Town Clerk's office. The Town Council approved the ordinance prohibiting the distribution of single use plastic bags in April and later approved a modified version to clarify that the ban takes effect on Jan. 1.


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