West Chester mayor pitches plan to limit use of plastic bags at checkout

Those ubiquitous plastic bags soon may be a thing of the past in West Chester, if Mayor Dianne Herrin has her way.

WEST CHESTER — With borough council possibly acting in direct violation of state law, last Wednesday’s vote to ban single use plastic bags and plastic straws passed by the thinnest of margins.

Council voted 4-3 to enact the ban during July 2020, which will be about a year after the governor signed a ban on municipalities enacting legislation to ban single use plastics and plastic straws.

Michael Stefano, Michael Galey, and Chair Diane LeBold voted against, with Bernie Flynn, Don Braceland, Denise Polk and Bill Scott voting in favor.

More than 100 residents and elected officials packed council chambers, including students from West Chester Friends School, who had originated the discussion last year.

“I was going to vote against it,” Braceland said during a Monday phone interview. “Three seconds before I voted 'yes' I changed my mind."

Some members on council were worried that they might get sued or individual council members would be held liable, said Braceland.

“This is the right thing to do,” he said. “If the state comes after us, I’m going to make sure it’s a public relations nightmare.”

LeBold was opposed.

“I voted against enacting the ordinance because we would be in a much stronger position to instruct the solicitor to challenge the statute that prohibits the ban,” LeBold said. “We could partner with other municipalities.

“Now because we violated the law we’re not in a position to challenge the state statue itself.”

Kildare’s of West Chester stopped using plastic straws and started using paper straws almost a year ago, said owner and chef Stephanie Gray.

“No one is complaining,” Gray said. “We’re not complaining.

“It’s better for the environment and the right thing to do. It’s a no-brainer.”

“I voted 'no' and spoke on the House Floor in opposition to SB712, now known as Act 20,” state Rep. Carolyn Comitta said. “Why would we want to stop communities from taking important action to protect its environment and citizens? The public response and attendance to Borough Council’s public hearing, made it clear that our residents overwhelmingly support this ban.”

State Sen. Andy Dinniman, D-19, fired up the public.

“I applaud Borough Council for having the courage to stand up and represent their constituents,” Dinniman said, “and I encourage them to continue to be active and join me in taking the fight to Harrisburg.

“There is no reason why the state should try to handcuff local municipalities that are moving to protect the environment for the benefit of all Pennsylvanians. We know we’re facing an environmental crisis when it comes to the proliferation of single-use plastics. Every step counts. These products can take hundreds of years to decompose, we can’t afford to wait.”

Flynn favored the ban.

The councilman said that concerned residents will lobby restaurants and merchants to voluntarily ban usage and note how many comply without an official ban.

“Let it sit on the shelf for at least until September,” Flynn said. “Very few people use plastic bags in the borough.”

At the onset, Scott said that he thought he might be the only voter on council in favor of the ban.

“There were so many people wanting it in the audience—there was dramatic change,” Scott said.

Scott noted why he voted in favor of the ban and in light of the state law.

“Show courage and just do it,” he said.

“I am grateful to the members of Borough Council who voted for the single-use plastic bag and straw ban, and to residents, business owners and local advocates who are standing up to protect our rights and improve our community,” said Mayor Dianne Herrin. “West Chester has spoken.

“Our business community deserves our support during this transition," Herrin said. "The Borough is working with citizens to create a collaborative outreach campaign, thanks to our new Sustainability Director Will Williams, our all-volunteer Sustainability Advisory Committee, and West Chester’s citizen-led Green Team. I am West Chester proud!”

Nathaniel Smith, West Chester Green Team member commented on the ban.

"People in Chester County are eager to make their daily lives more sustainable,” Smith said. “Reusing a shopping bag hundreds of times and avoiding plastic straws are two things they can do, along with a lot of other simple lifestyle changes that will be very helpful as more of us do them."

Rachel J. Davis, member of Plastic Free Please! and subsequently the West Chester Green Team, and also the WestChester Sustainability Advisory Committee to the Borough Council said the legality of any issue when it benefits a few people over the vast majority should always be questioned.

“But hundreds of people who showed up on Wednesday July 17 at the public hearing in support of the ban made their voices heard too: yes we want the ban," Davis said. "Businesses have even come forward to join in as corporate sponsors and many places, including Iron Hill, Classic Diner, Mas, Saloon 151, Limoncello, BonBon Sushi, have already rid their counters of plastic straws."

The SAC will be working closely with Borough Council, the new Sustainability Director Will Williams, businesses and residents to craft the most effective, official, and comprehensive awareness, communication, and outreach plans for everyone in town, David said.

The community is invited to bring their ideas to the Public Portion of the SAC Meeting at 401 E. Gay St on Aug. 8 at 6:30 p.m. to discuss the outreach plans.

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