By Jim Sullivan
---- — NEWBURYPORT — Citizens for Sustainable Bagging founder Janine Brunell Looker wants to change the city of Newburyport in a big way.
Most people don’t understand or have any real knowledge about the effects of plastic pollution or they don’t care, said Brunell Looker. And the only way you can have an effect within a larger community and to effect change is to “mandate change.”
The change Brunell Looker is looking for is to cut down drastically on plastic bags distributed in the city. She began the Citizens for Sustainable Bagging group a little over a year ago to try to create legislation on the issue that would either place a per-bag fee on consumers when they use plastic bags for the products they purchase or an out-and-out ban on the bags being issued themselves.
Brunell Looker said plastic detritus in the ocean has had a serious impact on the health of wildlife. Seals, birds and marine animals ingest plastic, often leading to death.
“Becoming responsible for bringing your own bags to the store is nothing compared to the effects that we don’t see.”
Looking for some boots on the ground, the citizens group has recently been working with Newburyport High School’s Environmental Club as well as the Gulf of Maine Institute (GOMI), a Canadian/American organization that works with students and adults in the stewardship of the Gulf of Maine.
Outgoing NHS senior and GOMI member Cyrus Woodman recently coordinated a public showing of the documentary “Bag It,” which included a community discussion with Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday, state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, and a representative from the office of state Sen. Kathleen O’Connor Ives, D-Newburyport.
“A little plastic bag doesn’t seem like it will be a problem creator,” said Woodman. “But it does create a lot of problems in the community, whether it be the environmental (aspect) when you drive around town and you see them stuck in trees all over the place. That’s one of the problems and they can do a lot of damage in many different ways.”
Woodman and his fellow student volunteers have also been surveying the public and businesses in the city to get an idea of how the public might respond to such legislation. Woodman estimates that the groups have already surveyed between 70 and 80 Newburyport businesses so far and have been met with little opposition, he said.
“I would say the vast majority of the retail businesses in the greater downtown Newburyport area are in support of moving toward more sustainable ways,” said Woodman. “Largely, the support from local businesses is there.”
However, communication with the bigger stores in the city such as Shaw’s and Market Basket has not been as easy to come by.
“I think everyone assumes that they would naturally be opposed to this sort of thing,” Woodman said. “But there hasn’t been any back-and-forth discussion yet. The small businesses and retail shops downtown are vastly in support.”
Brunell Looker admits that such legislation might seem troublesome to the average consumer, who may see a fee on their shopping bags as a penalty, and said that efforts are being made to answer such concerns and work is currently being done to secure funding to promote the use of reusable bags.
“I appreciate that this initiative can feel big to people and rile people up,” said Brunell Looker. “The town could be covered with ‘Save Our Plastic Bag’ signs. But I think what the initiative is about is expressing care for our environment. It’s a community pride issue.”
“This is a commonsense issue,” said Woodman. “Newburyport should move toward more sustainable bagging in the community. I think it is the right thing for Newburyport to do.”
Plastic bag bans are becoming more common lately, having been put in place in California and Texas. Closer to home, Nantucket has had a ban in place since 1990 and both Brookline and Manchester-by-the-Sea have also voted in such bans. Brunell Looker said she hopes to get the initiative before the City Council within the next few months.
“It’s a love initiative,” said Brunell Looker. “It’s about caring, it’s about love, it’s about the future.”