A ban on the sale of single-use plastic drink bottles in Oak Bluffs has not been enforced in the almost two years that it has been in effect, causing concern among the bylaw’s backers and highlighting the uphill battle to reduce pollution across the Island. 

The bylaw, which was created to cut down on plastic waste, passed in all six Island town meetings between 2019 and 2022 and was put forth by a coalition of Island students known as Plastic Free MV. It banned the sale of plastic bottles under 34 ounces that hold water or soft drinks. 

But Vineyard officials have acknowledged that enforcement hasn’t totally been put in place, and last month Oak Bluffs admitted there is no entity assigned to uphold the ban in town. 

Jasper Ralph advocates for the bottle ban in 2019. — Holly Pretsky

“There are some occurrences of plastic bottles under 34 ounces of water or soft drinks still being sold in town,” said chair Emma Green-Beach at the March 26 select board meeting. “It’s something that this board is tasked with addressing. That’s how the bylaw is written — that it will be the duty of the select board or its designee to enforce this bylaw.”

When the Oak Bluffs board raised the lack of enforcement last month, some board members and business owners voiced concerns that enforcing the ban could be bad for Island shops.

“I don’t disagree with the bylaw of reducing the plastic, I just don’t think it works effectively. I think that it penalizes the local business,” said select board member Dion Alley.

His worry that residents will get single-use plastics from off-Island or online was echoed by some of the residents in attendance, including Jennifer Pacheco, who runs Reliable Market. Ms. Pacheco presented the select board with a petition asking members to take no action to enforce the bylaw.

“We have two lists, 251 signed by Oak Bluffs voters, and 181 signed by out of town people who come to Oak Bluffs to do their shopping,” she said. 

After submitting the petition, Ms. Pacheco added that she was dissatisfied with how the group that created the bylaw reacted to counter proposals made by local businesses.

“What if we sold not only plastic bottles, but guaranteed to bring in the metal cans and cardboard boxes?,” she said. “They didn’t want any of it.”

But several residents urged the town to step up and enforce the bylaw, which had the overwhelming support of town meeting. 

“This isn’t debatable, as far as I’m concerned,” said Richard Toole, a member of the Oak Bluffs energy committee and the former board president for the Vineyard Conservation Society. “This is a no brainer. Single-use plastic has got to go.”

Single-use plastics contribute to pollution in a variety of ways. Plastics are usually made from petroleum, so creating plastic emits greenhouse gasses. Disposed plastics pose threats to wildlife. As plastic degrades, it breaks down into microplastics that get into water, air and food.

Students with Plastic Free MV put forward the bylaw. — Aaron Wilson

Several students who were involved in the creation of the bylaw were disappointed with how it was playing out. 

“[The bylaw] prevents single-use waste and PFAS contamination,” said regional high school junior Quinlan Slavin, one of the original members of Plastic Free MV. “There’s been a lot of evidence that they can cause hormone imbalances and some developmental challenges.”

The group of students behind the bylaw worked with teacher Annemarie Ralph to find a community service project related to the environment. According to Ms. Ralph, the group of students originally met with restaurant owners in 2018 to ask them to stop automatically serving plastic straws. From there, the group moved on to plastic bottles.

“We would work every day at lunch. The kids would come into my office and we would brainstorm what to do,” Ms. Ralph said. “All the places on the Island that sold water or soda, we went and visited them.”

The students decided that banning bottles under one liter would have the greatest impact and began working on public outreach.

“We were holding these public forums for people to come and ask questions about it,” said high school junior Finn Robinson, who was a member of Plastic Free MV. “The select boards were interested in us hosting these forums, because they felt like people might have concerns relating to this, especially businesses.”

In each town, the bylaw states that the first time someone violates the regulation, they are to receive a written warning. If there are additional violations, fines can be issued. But based on visits to stores around the Island, plastic bottles prohibited by the ban are still sold in Oak Bluffs, Tisbury and Edgartown. 

Different towns have taken different steps for enforcement. In West Tisbury and Edgartown, the board of health is in charge of enforcement.

Voters raise their cards at the 2021 Oak Bluffs town meeting, the year the plastic bottle ban passed in town. — Jeanna Shepard

Enforcement in Tisbury would be delegated from the select board to the building department only if a complaint is raised, according to town administrator John Grande. He added that when someone applies to open a business, they have to acknowledge on paper that the ban is in effect.

Enforcement has not been an issue in Aquinnah, which has only a handful of businesses, according to town administrator Jeffrey Madison. He said that if a complaint is raised to the select board, it would most likely be delegated to the police or the board of health.

Chilmark’s select board is designated to enforcement, though there have been no complaints received for non-compliance. Town administrator Timothy Carroll pointed to the three water bottle refill stations in the town, made possible through the Vineyard Conservation Society, as an additional effort to move away from single-use plastic.

According to Oak Bluffs town administrator Deborah Potter, no fines in her town have been issued to the businesses observed selling these bottles. The only action taken by the town has been to send out two reminder letters to local businesses.

Ms. Green-Beach said she brought the bylaw before the select board because of the lack of enforcement, and did raise potential ways for the board to get the ball rolling.

“We don’t, in fact, have the power to enforce this well . . . . I would like to see if we could designate this to be enforced by the board of health,” she said. “They have enforcement power. Reduction of plastic use is seen as a public health issue.”

The Oak Bluffs select board decided to move forward with a working group to look at the issue. Though the group hasn’t been set up yet, some board members hoped it could be a chance to change the bylaw on the books. 

“I think that one of the options should be . . . to look at revisiting the whole thing,” select board member Gail Barmakian said at last month’s meeting. “I think there are some options here to make it more palatable and address the issue.”