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A Boy Scout had a big idea about helping the environment. East Aurora will consider it

Anthony Mercurio couldn't get his Boy Scout troop to accept his Eagle Scout project: a proposal that would ban the use of plastic containers and utensils by restaurants in East Aurora.

He hopes for a different result from the Village Board.

Anthony's idea will be the subject of a public hearing at 7 p.m. Monday in Village Hall, 571 Main St. If passed, it would affect more than 40 food-service businesses and organizations in the village.

But it also is offering the high school senior a real-life lesson in what happens when environmental issues intersect with business and politics.

The 17-year-old son of village Mayor Peter Mercurio said his interest in the environment stemmed from his junior year biology class teacher Lawrence Grisanti. Anthony recalled watching videos in class on the north Arctic ice melt and the mass flooding it can cause. Grisanti told the class that if anyone could make a difference, it was their generation.

"It got me thinking, how could I stop people from polluting the earth?" Anthony said.

So he took to his computer and Googled "laws against straws in New York villages." But he didn't think a ban on plastic straws went go far enough so he added a variety of utensils, containers and lids to his proposal.

He made his pitch to a committee of Boy Scout Troop 513, which rejected it.

“The question with Anthony’s project was whether it met the requirements, particularly leadership," explained Scoutmaster Keith Bender. "Does the scout demonstrate the ability to supervise a number of individuals?"

But Anthony showed characteristics of a different trait: persistence. That led him back to his local government and to the broader community, which already has begun to embrace the sustainability movement. Ellen Neumaier, president of Aurorans for Climate and Energy Sense, said that dates to the first Taste of East Aurora eight years ago and concerns about the amount of plastic waste it created.

“We knew that the Elmwood Festival of the Arts was a zero-waste event that required vendors to sign a sustainability pledge,” said Neumaier. “If they can do it, why can’t we? It’s what we believe."

A survey of village restaurants and food service organizations conducted by the group found about half already practiced some form of sustainability, Neumaier said. Among them are Barbill, Kornerstone, Elm Street Bakery and East Aurora Kiwanis.

“The majority of them want to change, but the main problem is cost,” said Neumaier.

Donald Hawley agrees with that. The administrator of the local Moose Lodge, said he has mixed feelings about the proposed law.

“In this day and age everyone needs to go green,” said Hawley. “We are phasing out Styrofoam takeout containers and switching to cardboard, though we are still looking for cardboard salad bowls for our steak roasts. It’s a huge expense – twice as much as Styrofoam – and sometimes it’s not as practical."

East Aurora’s proposed environmental sustainability legislation is modeled after one that took effect this January in the Village of Sea Cliff on Long Island. Anthony’s two-page draft widens the scope of the sustainability legislation enacted by a number of municipalities in the state, said the executive director of New York State Conference of Mayors.

"We are aware of a number of municipalities that have imposed bans on plastic bags, plastic straws and/or plastic stirrers," said Peter A. Baynes, the group's executive director. "Some have also included plastic food containers as part of their ban."

Anthony Mercurio will reconstruct this shelter in Hamlin Park used by parents whose children are taking road tests. His first Eagle Scout project, implementing sustainability legislation for the Village of East Aurora, was rejected. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Under the proposed law, first-time offenders will receive a warning. A second offense would mean a a $100 fine with additional fines of $200 and $400 for third and fourth violations, respectively.

Jesse Griffis, chairman of the village Tree Board, said the scale of fines for sustainability violations exceeds those set for the removal of trees in designated sections of the village. Griffis also speculated on the law’s efficacy.

“I question whether or not [the law] would make a difference in the grand scheme, given the size of the village compared with the size of the Earth, and the size of a straw with the size of an average Amazon package,” Griffis said. “We can crow about the law, but will it make a difference in the amount of garbage in the ocean?"

East Aurora High School may be leading the charge for environmental change in the village, thanks to a group of students who belong to the Sustainability Club, unofficially formed in 2018 as an offshoot of the Science Club. The students have already effected changes that will save the school district money, said Jeffrey Shelley, high school science instructor.

The club pushed to replace fluorescent lightbulbs with LEDs in the high school, Shelley said. He pointed to his classroom as an example.

“It used to cost $600 a year to light, but with LEDs, the cost is lower than $200,” Shelley said. “LED light bulbs cost $4.50 each. Within a fraction of one year, the district will see the savings.”

While he waits to see what his father and the rest of the village's elected officials will do, Anthony has not given up on his Eagle Scout dreams. He is o to another community project: the rehabilitation of a DMV shelter in Hamlin Park, where anxious parents wait while their offspring take their road tests.

That project is designed to make people more comfortable. In many ways, his other project aims to do the opposite.

“The price difference will agitate some restaurants, and they may fight back," he said. "But it has to happen.”

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