2016-01-29 / Front Page

Pupils seek plastic bag ban

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

Tucker Kennedy, 11, and Bella Rossborough, 10, both students at Sea Road Elementary School in Kennebunk, are leading a drive to discourage the use of plastic shopping bags in town through an ordinance that, if it makes the June ballot and is adopted, would assess a 5-cent fee, per bag (Duke Harrington photo) Tucker Kennedy, 11, and Bella Rossborough, 10, both students at Sea Road Elementary School in Kennebunk, are leading a drive to discourage the use of plastic shopping bags in town through an ordinance that, if it makes the June ballot and is adopted, would assess a 5-cent fee, per bag (Duke Harrington photo) KENNEBUNK — The drive to ban, or at least discourage, the use of plastic shopping bags has taken off across Southern Maine in the last 18 months, but there’s something different about the effort in Kennebunk.

There, the initiative is led by a 10-year-old girl.

Bella Rossborough is now in the fifth grade at Sea Road Elementary School, but it was last year when she took up the cause.

“In fourth grade I read a Scholastic News article on how bad plastic is altogether for animals. I wrote a story on it and my teacher helped me make it into a letter and we brought it to selectmen.”

Bella read her letter before the Kennebunk Board of Selectmen at its June 23 meeting, and, after receiving praise for her initiative, was referred to the town’s energy efficiency advisory committee.

“I knew there would be a lot more steps to the process,” Bella said in a Jan. 22 interview at her school. “It was still kind of nerve-wracking because they’re, like, really important to the town of Kennebunk and I had never done anything like that.”

Since that first referral, Bella has attended every monthly meeting of the energy committee, while also working on research and public relations projects to aid the committee and further her goal of eventually banning the use of plastic shopping bags in Kennebunk.

According to Bella and her teacher, Jan Gibson, the energy committee is expected to decide soon on wording for an ordinance proposal that would assess a 5-cent fee for each plastic bag given out at stores in town. That meeting took place just after the deadline for this week’s issue of The Post.

Committee chairman Anthony Dater could not be reached for comment. However, a member of the group, with whom Bella and Gibson have been working, said via email Monday that a vote is planned for Feb. 10.

“At our next monthly meeting our committee will vote on a statement regarding the use of plastic bags in Kennebunk,” committee member Dennis Anderson wrote. “Our committee will then decide on what is the best course of action for this statement.”

The hope, Bella said, is that the proposal will make it out of committee and through review by selectmen, to include a public hearing, in time to go before voters in June.

According to Town Clerk Merton Brown, so long as a request for consideration of a new ordinance is made by March 16, it has a chance, at least, of getting on the June ballot.

“This gives ample time for the various legal requirements,” he said.

This is not the first time Kennebunk has considered regulating the use of plastic bags. When Bella first spoke to selectmen, Albert Searles pointed out the topic has been debated and set aside in the recent past.

“I remember about a year and a half ago we had a discussion on this topic and one of the problems we found was the cost to businesses in town that keep a stock of plastic bags on hand. So, this is something that would have to be brought forward in a progressive form,” Searles said.

Chairman Kevin Donovan agreed.

“There was some pretty in-depth discussion by the board of selectmen at that time regarding our concerns with businesses and a few other things,” Donovan said. “But I agree the time has come to look at this very seriously.

“I think, leading your classmates, you could be back before us with some type of proposal that everybody can agree on,” Donovan continued.

That prediction appears ready to bear fruit.

“Our committee is pleased to be working with Bella,” Anderson said. “She is a wonderfully, energetic young person who has helped us focus again on this issue.”

While Bella advances all of the same issues touted by environmentalists statewide when speaking about the need to ban plastic bags – including the length of time it takes of a plastic bag to break down in the environment, and the presumed adverse affects on soils when they do – her main concern is more immediate. It’s the wildlife that really suffer, she says, and in a coastal community like Kennebunk, some of those species are endangered already.

“There actually are a lot of animals in Kennebunk that are suffering,” she said. “Say, you go to the beach and you leave a plastic behind that you brought some stuff in, a seagull could eat it, or it could get wrapped around a sea turtle’s neck, or crabs could get it stuck around their claws. Kennebunk also has the largest flock of the grasshopper sparrow, which is a type of bird that is endangered. We want their numbers to stay the same, at least. They’re actually really cool birds, so if we were to lose those, that would not be good at all.”

After her visit to selectmen, Bella quickly recruited some of her fellow students. Chief among them has been Tucker Kennedy, 11, who has become her right-hand-man, of sorts.

Together, they have conducted research shared with the energy committee, produced informational pamphlets they hope will sway voters, passed out reusable nylon fabric shopping bags, and surveyed downtown businesses.

“It’s been fun and we’ve also found lots of different things that we’ve shared,” Tucker said.

Among the discoveries, Bella and Tucker say, is that more than 5 trillion plastic grocery bags are produced every year, and with less than 1 percent reused, which means the world goes through 160,000 plastic bags every second of every day.

In America alone, they say, people throw away 100 billion bags per year. And, because the plastic is made with petroleum as a key ingredient, their manufacture requires 12 million barrels of oil per year, while the bags “remain toxic” even after they finally break down in landfills.

But, like Bella, Tucker says the immediate danger is from bags that don’t make it to the dump, but end up going free range in the environment.

“I feel like it’s not fair to the animals that get killed,” he said. “I’ve seen where they can get the plastic stuck in their throats, and I don’t want that. I decided to help because every small thing counts. So, if we can start small it might grow bigger and help the animals and the environment.”

When Bella first spoke before Kennebunk selectmen, only Portland had taken action against plastic bags in Maine. In June 2014, in hopes of discouraging the use of so-called “single-use” bags, Portland required stores that generate at least 2 percent of gross revenue in food sales charge a nickel per plastic bag.

After Bella joined the cause, South Portland followed Portland’s lead, adopting a similar standard Sept. 21 that goes into effect March 1. York adopted an outright ban in November that begins March 16, while earlier this month Falmouth instituted a 5-cent bag fee, mandating it be assessed by stores larger than 10,000 square feet. Six stores in Falmouth will be required to pass on that fee starting April 1. In addition, Brunswick, Freeport and Topsham all took a look at bag fees this past fall, with plans to readdress the topic this year.

In both Portland and South Portland, stores that are required to charge a bag fee are allowed to keep those funds to use as they see fit. However, Bella is hopeful that in Kennebunk, stores will have to use that money to provide reusable shopping bags.

“That’s the big goal, to end the use of plastic bags completely,” she said. “We’d like to ban them right off, but it really has to be done a little bit at a time. A 5-cent charge isn’t a lot. It might amount to 25 or 50 cents per trip. So it won’t really hurt anyone. But the cost of a reusable bag is not a lot either, maybe $1. So, that pays for itself with one or two trips to the grocery story. Hopefully, people will see it’s in their interests to make the change, and that will help the environment and the animals.”

For Bella’s mother Edie Rossborough, the change in her daughter since she launched her campaign has been amazing, and for that she credits Bella’s teacher, Jan Gibson, who has supported and encouraged Bella’s interests, even incorporating it into her lesson plans.

“I’m really thrilled. When this thing started I never imagined it would go this far,” Rossborough said.

“Without a wonderful teacher like Mrs. Gibson, this project would never have happened,” Rossborough said. “She has truly gone above and beyond in her efforts to support and encourage Bella in this endeavor. She has been Bella’s biggest cheerleader. While Bella has learned valuable skills such as research, public speaking, making charts, graphs, brochures, and much more through this process, the most important lesson she has learned is that she has the ability to make a difference.

“Jan gets much of the credit for teaching Bella that lesson,” Rossborough said, “and it’s one that will stay with her forever.”

Staff Writer Wm. Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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