NEW LONDON — The Kearsarge Regional High School Sustainability Club has spent months campaigning for a plastic bag ban in New London, only to see a nuance in state law thwart their efforts.
Earlier this year, students gave themselves a crash course in municipal government, researched ordinances in other states, collected signatures on freezing winter days and made their case at a town hall meeting. .
The ordinance they sought in the city’s mandate banned single-use plastic bags at store checkouts, with exemptions for produce bags and restaurant takeout.
Club officials said they showed up at the Town Meeting ready to answer the tough questions. Instead, New Londoners rose in support of the ordinance and students heard congratulations before the vote was even called.
Sure enough, New London passed the ban. But the students’ victory soon evaporated.
The Selectboard sent the club a letter on March 31 advising that the city had no power to bring in the plastic bag ban and that the ordinance they had worked so hard for could not be enforced .
“It’s like you’re running a race, and you cross the finish line, and you don’t see anyone ahead of you, and you think you’re first, and the next thing you know is is that everyone double-crossed you.” said Meghan Blood, the club’s secretary.
“They are just moving the finish line,” added Madelin Prak, the club’s president.
Prak led the effort with Blood, Vice President Amber Houle and Treasurer Jane Anderson, but it was a group initiative from the entire Sustainability Club.
Social studies teacher Ruby Hill helped them and read their prescription, but Erik Anderson, the club’s counselor, pointed out that it was student-run.
Now the students plan to take their advocacy to the state level.
Following the town meeting, the New Hampshire House of Representatives introduced HB 1119, which would have explicitly given cities the right to regulate paper and plastic bags. It turns out New London wasn’t alone in its failed bid to ban plastic bags.
Under the New Hampshire constitution, cities do not have what is called self-government. This generally means that municipal governments only have powers that have been granted by the legislature. Without a law such as HB 1119, selection boards in New London and elsewhere do not have the power to pass their own plastic bag ordinance.
The New London Selectboard has encouraged students to get in touch with their state representatives.
“My city is obviously very interested in having an ordinance on this. I represent my constituents. This (a ban on plastic bags) would be something I would like to see worked at the legislative level,” said Rep. Karen Ebel, D-New London, who is actively involved in efforts to reduce waste streams and improve the recycling in New Hampshire. .
The 2022 Town Meeting was not the first time voters in New London have voiced their support for limiting plastic. At the 2020 town hall, they passed an ordinance that expresses the city’s support for a statewide ban and encourages local businesses to charge a small fee for single-use bags.
But the students discovered in their research that this preliminary effort had been abandoned during the pandemic.
Rep. Dan Wolf, R-Newbury, who also represents New London, said a patchwork of municipal bans across the state could pose problems.
“It could potentially penalize one store over another,” he said. “What if you have a market basket in New London and a market basket in another city that doesn’t have a ban? How do you handle this?
There is currently no market cart in New London, although there is a Hannaford.
Although he said he was in favor of limiting plastic, he doubted the state was ready for a ban because he didn’t believe a “reasonable alternative” was readily available.
Yet not everyone agrees that cities don’t already have the power to regulate their own solid waste.
Melissa Gates is the Northeast Regional Director of the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit that protects the oceans and fights plastic pollution. The Sustainability Club contacted her while researching how to adopt an ordinance.
She argues that New Hampshire cities have the power to ban plastic bags because they have the explicit power to regulate their solid waste.
“To put this into context, imagine the absurdity of every item disposed of in New Hampshire having to be explicitly itemized in order to fall under a city’s authority to manage its solid waste,” she said.
To keep pace with items being sold and discarded, there would have to be constant administrative oversight and copious bureaucracy that would have to be updated weekly, she said.
She also cited New Hampshire regulations that prioritize reducing waste headed to landfills for the sake of the environment and public health.
When the Surfrider Foundation testified in support of HB 1119, it presented the bill as needed clarification because the ambiguity had previously hampered local efforts to limit plastic in other municipalities.
“HB 1119 was the latest iteration in a long series of legislative attempts that the New Hampshire Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation has helped lead over the past decade with the goal of clarifying existing authority for NH municipalities to manage single-use items in the waste stream,” says Gates.
New London would not have been the first municipality in the state to ban certain plastics.
Portsmouth passed ordinances banning certain single-use plastics and enforced them without challenge, said Stephanie Seacord, the city’s public information officer. One ordinance bans all single-use plastic on city property, and another bans Styrofoam citywide.
But unlike New London, Portsmouth is a town, not a town, and towns have more power to act independently of the legislature, which grants them broad authority to pass ordinances for “the welfare of the town”.
The city is focusing on education and incentives — such as one-time reductions in sidewalk user fees — to help restaurants switch to compostable food products, Seacord said. The ordinance also gives the city the right to set fines.
Meanwhile, members of the Sustainability Club said whatever the outcome in New London, they are better prepared to participate in government.
“We weren’t sure what we were doing or how to navigate the legal process — we’re still navigating the legal process,” Prak said.
Now they’ve gained some hard-earned experience: They’ve learned to always collect additional signatures after a problem with their originally filed petition led to a last-minute scramble over a problem with a signature. And they learned that changing the law takes a lot of time and research.
But they won’t give up.
“I think if there was enough education, more people would be doing it right now,” Prak said. “(Plastic bags) are really bad for the environment. Most people know that. It’s not something most people deny, but it’s easier on the environment.
Claire Potter is a member of the Report for America body. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3242.