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How a Main Line town became the first in Pa. to ban plastic straws

Narberth passed a tax on plastic bags and a ban on plastic straws on Oct. 17.

Maddie French, 10, restocks the reusable bags left in a milk carton in front of a business in Narberth,. The Montgomery County borough recently became the first municipality in Pennsylvania to pass an ordinance regulating single-use plastics, including bags and straws.
Maddie French, 10, restocks the reusable bags left in a milk carton in front of a business in Narberth,. The Montgomery County borough recently became the first municipality in Pennsylvania to pass an ordinance regulating single-use plastics, including bags and straws.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Missy French thought she was simply helping the Girl Scouts she leads get their next merit badge, spending the funds earned from hawking cookies on reusable shopping-bag kiosks on Narberth's main drag.

She had no idea that, a few months later, she and the girls from Troop 7886 would lend a hand in passing a landmark local law in Pennsylvania.

Narberth became the first town in the state to enact legislation regulating single-use plastics in a unanimous borough council vote Oct. 17. The ordinance places a 10-cent fee on plastic shopping bags, and outright bans the distribution of plastic drinking straws, unless requested by a disabled customer.

"My husband and I have been here over 20 years, and this is the first time we've seen the community come together so strongly," French said. "We're not a beach town, we're not a town on a major waterway, so the fact that we were able to push something through on the environment, without having to see that environmental impact in our faces, means a lot."

French's daughter, Maddie, and her fellow scouts refill their two kiosks – essentially repurposed milk crates – a few times a week, with the roughly 200 reusable bags that make up their supply. The girls' interest in plastic's impact on the environment came from a group trip to the Philadelphia Zoo, and further research on the region's waterways.

It was work that coincidentally lined up with what then-newly elected Councilwoman Cyndi Rickards was working on as she got to know her constituents.

"There was a tremendous outpouring of residents who told me this was a priority for them, that enough was enough when it came to plastics," Rickards said. "And the leadership of these girls in the town challenged me, as an elected leader, to look into the issue."

On the West Coast, this has been a popular cause for years. California banned single-use plastic bags in 2014, citing their danger to waterways and the wildlife native to them. Seattle had made a similar move in 2012.

That's not news to Narberth. Longtime residents describe the town of 4,200 as progressive when it comes to the environment: One eco-friendly annual event, narbEarth, celebrated its 29th anniversary in April with a clothing swap, a "fix-it" table for broken household items and presentations from regional wildlife centers and master gardeners.

Conversations about plastics and their environmental impact, spurred at family dinner tables, found legs at such community events, shared among neighbors and spread gradually, according to Rickards.

"That's why I thought we could do this," she said. "If we couldn't do this in a community so dedicated to environmentalism, with so many independent stores, I don't know where you could get it done."

The only chain businesses within Narberth's borders are a Rite Aid pharmacy and a Manhattan Bagel shop, and Rickards said management in both were receptive when she visited to explain the ordinance while it was being drafted. That was a pleasant surprise for her, as was the almost universal support she received from the locally owned businesses that dot Haverford Avenue in the borough.

Coco Thai Bistro has already swapped plastic straws and take-out boxes for paper ones. Joanna Harrison, the manager at the Great American Pub, has stocked 1,000 bamboo straws. And Gina Vople, whose father and uncle started the American Family Market 50 years ago, said the family business has been encouraging customers to ditch plastic bags since the winter.

None of the surrounding towns have publicly indicated they intend to follow Narberth's lead, and officials either didn't respond to requests for comment or said it wasn't a priority for them. But Rickards and some Narberth residents say they've been solicited by some neighboring towns for input.

Meanwhile, New Jersey has far outpaced Pennsylvania when it comes to regulating single-use plastics.

Late last month, a North Jersey senator introduced a bill that would place an outright ban on "plastic carryout bags, expanded polystyrene, and single-use plastic straws," and proposes a penalty up to $5,000 for businesses who flout it. Proponents say the measure introduced by State Sen. Bob Smith (D., Middlesex), if approved, would be the most stringent legislation of its kind in the country. The bill came after Gov. Murphy vetoed a measure that would have taxed single-use plastics, saying it was too lenient.

Individual New Jersey towns have enacted similar legislation. Most lie along New Jersey's shoreline, including Harvey Cedars, Longport, and Belmar. But the most recent came Sept. 17 in Lambertville, a bridge-length away from Bucks County.

It's a trend that troubles Phil Rozenski, the senior director of sustainability at Novolex, a plastics manufacturer that operates a retail bag plant in Centre County.

"I think people know that in its simplest form, a tax is essentially a ban: You tax something enough, and it will go away," he said. "The unintended consequences are much greater. Here in Pennsylvania, it will impact jobs."

Novolex employs 160 in Pennsylvania and 360 in New Jersey, at facilities in Union and Gloucester Counties, according to statistics from the company. But even more critical than those jobs, Rozenski argues, is that local laws regulating plastic products are misleading.

"A much more appropriate approach to this issue is addressing the larger problem, which is how consumers are handling waste in general," he said, adding that a focus on properly disposing of and recycling plastics is a more successful, long-term approach to protecting the environment.

"What this is," he said of Narberth's ordinance, "is a distraction from meaningful solutions for eliminating waste."

Jennifer Garman, the director of government affairs for Disability Rights Pennsylvania, took a more measured approach to news of Narberth's action.

"We understand environmental concerns, and we are sensitive to that," she said. "But the fact remains that for a lot of folks with disabilities, they need plastic straws as an accommodation."

The language in Narberth's ordinance granting latitude to customers with disabilities encouraged her. But she stressed that education is an important component to any legislation focused on plastic straws.

"I think by and large people with disabilities are prepared and carry with them the things that they need to meet their needs," she said. "But life happens sometimes, and you forget things. And not having a plastic straw available could lead to serious health concerns."

Still, Joseph Otis Minott, the executive director of the Clean Air Council, views Narberth's ordinance as a victory, a first step in what he hopes to be a larger trend in Pennsylvania.

Minott and his organization have been fighting for similar legislation in Philadelphia City Council since 2012. All previous efforts have died, he and his staff said, but there's talk of a renewed effort in the coming weeks.

"I think it's very big, and I think it's important that someone be the first, that's always the hardest to be," Minott said. "Narberth stepped up to plate and did the right thing, and that in and of itself creates momentum for other jurisdictions to start moving forward."

Days after Narberth passed its ordinance, State Sen. Daylin Leach and State Rep. Mary Jo Daley, both Philadelphia-area Democrats, announced their intention to cosponsor a statewide bill on plastic and straws during the next legislative session.

Leach, who has floated similar bills before, conceded that it may be a hard sell in Pennsylvania, which bears a reputation for being slow in enacting environmental regulation.

"Admittedly, Narberth is more lower hanging fruit than other communities in the commonwealth, but we hope they're an example," he said. "It's one thing to debate this, but another to see what happens when a bill passes.  Does civilization end or not? Can people adjust in a way that's not overly burdensome?

"With Narberth, we'll have some facts and data to go on when we try to convince people to support this."