Colin Kelly, left, director of the town’s Conservation Department, discusses details of the local ban on single-use plastics and how the ordinance will be enforced during an online meeting with representatives of food establishments on Wednesday.

By Gretchen Webster

WESTPORT — An ordinance banning single-use plastic products from local food businesses — adopted before the COVID-19 pandemic but sidelined as merchants struggled to survive — is now being enforced. 

The ordinance prohibits food establishments from using plastic containers, including non-recyclable cups, plates, bowls, trays and other utensils suitable only for one-time use.

Merchants who violate the ordinance could be fined, but that is not the intent of the ordinance, according to town Conservation Director Colin Kelly, whose department has been tasked with enforcing the ordinance.

“The intent is to gain compliance, not to go through an enforcement action,” Kelly said.

The single-use plastic ban was approved in May 2019 and went into effect in November of that year, he said. “We rolled out public outreach and discussion, working with restaurants and establishments, and then the pandemic certainly stopped everything. It made it a back-burner priority … put it on pause for a while.”

During periods of the pandemic when in-person dining was banned, restaurants and other food outlets survived largely because of take-out and home-delivered orders — often in single-use plastic containers.

Now, Kelly and his department will work with merchants to help them understand and comply with the re-activated ordinance, including providing them with lists of biodegradable products and other resources. Another eco-friendly ordinance that banned use of plastic retail bags was enacted in Westport in 2009.

Long-term goals of the ordinance, according to the Conservation Department’s outreach efforts, include:

  • Reducing waste.
  • Prioritizing re-usables.
  • Cutting costs.
  • Becoming eco-friendly.
  • Becoming sustainable.
  • Providing healthier options.
A public information campaign has been launched by Westport officials to inform local merchants and their customers about the ordinance banning single-use plastics. / Contributed graphics

At a Wednesday online meeting, Kelly and his assistant, Michele Berglund, explained the ordinance’s requirements to about 25 merchants and others.

Matt Storch, of Match Burger Lobster and Saugatuck Provisions on Riverside Avenue, asked if containers used to serve food and drinks, such as a coated-paper cup for hot liquids, must be labeled biodegradable. Biodegradable cups are used at the restaurant to serve drinks, he said, but the cups are not labeled. “The price between one that says it [is biodegradable] and one that doesn’t is hundreds of dollars,” he said.

Kelly said that if a merchant can verify through their invoices or other means that a product being used meets the standards set by the ordinance, “that would be sufficient for us.” He and his staff will be working not only with merchants, but also getting information out to the public, he added.

“You can tell your clients that you’re actively working with our department and the town … We are happy to communicate with your clients and customers,” Kelly said.

Merchants also asked if certain plastic containers that can be used more than once would be subject to the ordinance. Those products would not fall under the law’s jurisdiction, they were told.

Another question was if vacuum-sealed plastic bags are prohibited. The vacuum-sealed bags aren’t specifically mentioned in the ordinance and therefore are exempt, Berglund explained.

One of the main steps the town has taken to promote information about the ordinance, Kelly said, is by joining the “Skip the Stuff” campaign, a national project organized by Upstream, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing waste by shifting from single-use materials to re-usables, according to the organization’s website.

In Westport, merchants who don’t automatically offer napkins, condiment packages, straws and trays could cut down on paper waste and save money, Berglund told the meeting. Those items should be available only at a customer’s request, she said.

The Skip the Stuff campaign, however, is a marketing effort only and involves no penalties, unlike Westport’s ordinance ban on single-use plastics. 

There also were questions from grocery store representatives about whether packaged goods delivered to the stores would be subject to the ordinance. Kelly said they would not. “But if you’re wrapping it and distributing it, then you are responsible to meet the ordinance,” he said.

And Louise Joseph of the Dough Girls Pizza food truck asked about using paper pizza boxes, which according to Skip the Stuff are carry-home products the campaign is working to eliminate. If paper products are requested, “that’s fine — it’s not like you’re handing it out — it’s by request only,” Berglund said.

Tom Kiely, operations director for the Selectwomen’s Office, said the Conservation Department deserves credit for promoting awareness of the single-use ordinance, which has also been endorsed by Sustainable Westport, the Westport Farmers Market and the Westport Downtown Association. “Hopefully we can get this up and running very soon,” he said.

Kelly acknowledged that not everyone will agree with the ordinance, and he understands there are times the ordinance may annoy customers.

“There are going to be ruffled feathers … We’d expect there is going to be some pushback from your customers. If they have questions, send them our way. We are the body that has to enforce it,” he told the merchants.

Information about what specifically is prohibited or acceptable under the single-use plastics ordinance is posted on the Conservation Department website, with a link to the full ordinance.

Freelance writer Gretchen Webster, a Fairfield County journalist for many years, was editor of the Fairfield Minuteman and has taught journalism at New York and Southern Connecticut State universities.