Politics can be daunting to any newcomer. But don’t tell that to Caitlin Bracken, who last May addressed Wakefield Town Meeting with unusual aplomb and savvy for a 15-year-old, using a four-page argument urging citizens to vote for a bylaw she crafted herself.
“My goal is to pass a bylaw that bans the use of single-use thin-film plastic bags because of the threat they pose to our earth and to animals,” she stated.
A sophomore at the Winsor School in Boston, Bracken, now 16, was motivated to take action after the election of President Donald Trump.
“When I was watching the debates and hearing the political perspectives on the environment, I was disheartened,” she said.
Initially, she wrote a letter to Wakefield Town Administrator Stephen Maio, who thought it was an idea worth pursuing.
At a Board of Selectmen’s meeting in April, she wowed attendees with a presentation supported with facts, statistics, and charts. To amend the town’s general bylaws, an article must be presented to Town Meeting for approval.
She drafted a bylaw after researching the language of the roughly then 42 cities and towns that already had plastic bag bans, a figure that has since risen to 60, according to the Mass Green Network. She fine-tuned it with Maio’s help. It became Article 28 on the May Town Meeting warrant.
“With every town in Massachusetts that restricts bags,” she told voters at the meeting, “the more likely it is that Massachusetts will ban it as a whole.”
Newly elected Selectwoman Mehreen Butt said, “I, like everyone else, was blown away by her presentation.”
Among opponents, the Wakefield Lynnfield Chamber of Commerce argued the bylaw would be a new burden on businesses, particularly small ones. Laurie Hunt, a local realtor and member of the Chamber’s board of directors, objected mainly to how the bylaw was written.
“We wanted it to be reviewed and presented again,” she said. Later, members were split and voted not to take a stand on the ban.
Rather than approve or reject the bylaw, Town Meeting voters chose by a narrow margin, 64-61, to refer the matter to the Board of Selectmen for further study.
The board formed a committee made up of town officials, business owners, and citizens at large, including Bracken. They met over the summer to examine and refine the bylaw. The thickness of the bags allowed was reduced to 2.25 mils (thousandths of an inch) based on the breakeven point between environmental and economic impact. Plastic bags used to hold dry cleaning, newspapers, produce, and other similar merchandise — typically without handles — would continue to be allowed.
The bylaw specifies 2,500 square feet of business space as the distinction between small and large businesses for compliance to begin: July 1, 2018, for large businesses and Sept. 1 for small businesses. Penalties range from a warning up to a $300 fine for subsequent violations.
The bylaw already had been unanimously approved by the committee and the Board of Selectmen when Bracken made her Powerpoint presentation, “Plastic Bag Reduction in Business Establishments,” using 18 slides and 27 photographs, at Town Meeting in November.
Proponents and opponents engaged in spirited debate for almost an hour before Town Moderator William Carroll called for a vote. By show of hands, it overwhelmingly passed.
Now, local retailer Rada Frolichstein, owner of Rada Boutique & Upscale Consignment, must consider other options. She’s thinking about giving discounts for customers who bring in their own bags.
“I grew up in Europe, so bringing your own bags is nothing new,” she said. Still, she favors keeping her current branded paper bags, but quickly points out they are expensive at $1.50 to $2.50 per bag, plus the cost of tissue wrapper.
“I think small businesses should have been exempted until it becomes statewide,” she said. “A lot of people make decisions, but they never walk in our shoes. The only way I can survive is that I can provide an experience to a shopper of small boutique shopping.”
Farmland is a busy family-owned supermarket, bakery, and deli in business here since 1978. Owner Frank Pellegrini, whose logo bags “are reused all the time,” customers tell him, may not be in compliance.
“We want to do whatever the town wants,” he said. “If the town wants paper bags, we’ll use paper bags. We’ll be in compliance before July 1, anyway. We’ll run out of the plastic bags we have and switch.”
Caitlin’s mother, Kathleen, said, “Honestly, I didn’t think it would go very far. We were supportive, but she did a lot of work. The research she put in was significant. It wasn’t uncommon to ask a lot of questions.”
Her father Sean was equally proud. “I always want my kids to do better than me. I just never expected it to be so quickly.”