Grace Under Fire: Aquinnah Backs Plastic Bottle Ban

In this spring’s series of Annual Town Meetings, a group of fifth and sixth grade students approached the voters in three towns with a bold proposal: to ban a large portion of the single-use plastic bottles currently on the shelves in their town’s own businesses. As they headed into the Old Town Hall in Aquinnah last week, the students were as prepared as they could be. They had spent months doing research, perfecting talking points, and campaigning. On top of that, they now had the experience of having presented at Town Meeting in West Tisbury and Chilmark – and the confidence earned from winning those votes handily. While the kids themselves were understandably nervous (who wouldn’t be, presenting in front of the whole Town?), many of us – adults who have cheered them on, and helped where we could – were confident this last vote was going to be a shoe-in.  

This did not turn out to be the case.

As the students of Plastic Free MV distributed flyers on the steps of the Old Town Hall, there was a nervous ripple in the air: the kids could feel that there would be real opposition here. Once inside, they met a capacity audience, and they were not afraid to debate. Their proposed bylaw was asking businesses to shoulder a significant change – while it may be broadly accepted that we must take steps to move away from disposable plastics, when those steps harm a community member’s business it can be difficult to accept.

In the end, when the vote was called it was nearly unanimous – the students had pulled off the hat trick, taking plastic bottles off the shelves across the western half of the Island. We are obviously proud of their success, but also truly happy than in this town meeting season – especially in Aquinnah, where they faced real adversity and handled it with grace – our students got an important lesson in civics and the power of perseverance.

Though the bottle bylaw was just the fifth article on the warrant, it was still more than an hour before it came up. While waiting to be introduced by the moderator, the PFMV students witnessed contentious, sometimes heated debate over budget items and structural changes to town government (more at the Gazette). When it was finally their time, the students filed in wearing their matching blue shirts and began their presentation. As they had done at previous Town Meetings, they gave a description of their process, outlined the issues of plastic pollution, and explained the technical side of how their bylaw would work. They also added a new set of closing remarks unique to the Aquinnah meeting, evoking the sweeping grandeur of the beach and cliffs, and making a plea to celebrate and protect this remarkable place.

With the completion of the students’ remarks, the conversation was opened to voters. Two business owners, worried about loss of profits, respectfully voiced their opposition. One suggested the vote be done by Australian (secret) ballot, saying “how could anyone vote against these cute kids and their hard work?” Others had practical concerns, like what sort of alternative products were available, or technical questions, such as whether “distribution” (which was also banned, in addition to “sale”) would apply to folks offering bottled beverages in their own homes. However, the majority of voices in the room spoke of a deep-seated belief that it was the environment, not revenue, that was most at risk. One mom was rather choked up as she expressed gratitude to the students for taking action, as well as a sense of disappointment that her generation was not doing more. That concern – fear even – about the future of the environment bounced around the room, and was echoed by voters of diverse ages and backgrounds.

When the vote was called the sentiment in the room was clear. The chorus of "ayes" was loud enough to roll down the hills to Chilmark and West Tisbury; with any luck, it will be powerful enough carry all the way to the three down-Island towns, a serenade for future Town Meetings.

But back in Aquinnah, on one night in mid-May, a group of students made an impassioned plea and a room full of townspeople accepted their responsibility to stand up for the environment. There was an electricity to the room -- an almost giddy sense of power in the simple raising of one's voice to chart a new direction. It was a room full of hope. Thank you to PFMV for your leadership and inspiration, and thank you to the people of West Tisbury, Chilmark, and Aquinnah for the conviction to embrace a sometimes-difficult transition. And congratulations to all!