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Jim Kenyon: For Norwich fifth-graders, politics is their bag

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on Jan. 28, 2019. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 2/16/2019 10:01:12 PM
Modified: 2/16/2019 10:01:13 PM

Fifth-graders at Marion Cross School in Norwich are probably too young to remember late House speaker Tip O’Neill, but it hasn’t stopped them from putting his “all politics is local” playbook to good use.

The 10- and 11-year-olds in Jonathan Fenton’s social studies class are proposing a townwide ban on single-use plastic shopping bags.

To build support for their proposal, they’ve embarked on a take-it-to-the-people campaign that has them collecting signatures at school, church and the transfer station. They’ve gone door to door to survey retailers and restaurants on their use of plastic bags, and plastics in general.

The 50 or so fifth-graders graders have done their homework, too. They’ve watched documentaries, read scientific journals and conducted their own research on what Norwich and other Vermont towns are doing — and not doing — about “plastic pollution.”

Last Wednesday, students took their crusade to the Norwich Selectboard, which has the authority to enact a bag ban. During their 90-minute sales pitch, students pointed out that two Vermont towns — Brattleboro and Wilmington — already have joined a growing list of U.S. communities that have made plastic shopping bags a no-no.

The Vermont Legislature has talked for a few years about passing a statewide ban (California and Hawaii already have), but the Norwich kids aren’t waiting around for legislators to act.

They’ve produced a 44-page report that gives the Norwich Selectboard — and the rest of us who live on this planet — plenty to think about regarding how plastics impact the environment. They cited a study by Columbia University’s Earth Institute, which estimates nearly 18 billion pounds of new plastic trash ends up in the ocean annually.

“Scientists believe plastic never fully degrades but may take up to 1,000 years to break down into tiny microplastic particles,” the Norwich students wrote. “Plastic trash is often eaten by sea and land animals — even fed by mother birds to their young. Thousands die each year because they get caught up in plastic bags, or because their stomachs are full of plastic and not food.”

In their Selectboard presentation, students didn’t hesitate to call out one of the Upper Valley’s sacred cows — the Montshire Museum of Science.

On their visit to the Norwich museum’s gift shop, students noted some customers were leaving with items in small plastic bags. When I asked Trish Palao, the museum’s marketing and communications manager, about this, she said, “We do not use plastic to bag items, but we have some items wrapped in plastic because that’s how manufacturers send them to us.”

It’s possible that students were mistaken, Fenton said, after I told him about my conversation with Palao. When I stopped by the gift shop on Thursday, the woman behind the cash register was also adamant that the Montshire only uses paper shopping bags. (As she was explaining this, I couldn’t help noticing her wastebasket with a plastic liner.)

Under the proposed ban, the Montshire’s use of plastics would pass muster, Fenton said. But I’m not sure his students would be so magnanimous.

While pleased to learn that Ledyard National Bank’s branch on Main Street doesn’t use plastic shopping bags, fifth-grader Mary Westrich quipped in her Selectboard presentation that the bank gives out “lollipops in plastic wrappers.”

The wrappers actually are cellophane — not technically plastic — a bank employee told me the next day. Perhaps, but still not recyclable. Ten-year-old Milly Trombley offered a solution: “They could just use paper.”

Next up: Dan & Whit’s, the town’s venerable general store, where many shoppers find single-use plastic bags a convenient way to carry home groceries.

Students asked Dan Fraser how a ban would affect his family’s business. Some customers might be annoyed to no longer have a choice between plastic and paper, but the proposal is “definitely the right thing to do, environmentally,” he said.

But what to do about the supply of carryout plastic bags — worth roughly $500 — the store has on hand?

Students didn’t want their proposal to turn into a financial hardship for Dan & Whit’s.

Enter Wyatt Daigle. The 11-year-old was put in charge of drafting a letter to The Jack and Dorothy Byrne Foundation, requesting a grant for $500.

The money would be used to buy back Dan & Whit’s supply of bags so the store could “switch over to paper right away,” Daigle wrote.

Two days later, the check arrived.

Another major bag-user in town, Fogg’s Hardware and Supply, told students it could go to paper bags-only without much trouble. Its supply of plastic bags could be shipped to other Fogg’s stores.

Getting local businesses to buy into the proposal — and hold them accountable along the way — is just part of what fifth-graders have set out to do. They’ve let the Selectboard know that the town needs to step up too.

Norwich’s transfer station doesn’t recycle plastic shopping bags and many other plastic products, such as snack wrappers and drink pouches.

Students discovered, however, that neighboring Thetford’s transfer station collects 60 to 100 pounds of plastic-film products a week that it then drops off at a West Lebanon supermarket. A Virginia company uses the recycled products to make outdoor furniture.

If Thetford can do it, why not Norwich?

“It really is an impressive amount of work you’ve done,” Selectboard member John Langhus told students.

Will the Norwich Selectboard enact a ban on plastic bags? Will it adopt any of the students’ recycling recommendations?

Only time will tell, but it’s commendable that students weren’t waiting around. These fifth-graders would have made Tip O’Neill proud.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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