Bristol Backs Off Plastic Bag Ban


BRISTOL, R.I. — Three of the four Town Council members said no Wednesday night to moving forward with a ban on plastic bags. After hearing from waste experts, environmentalists and local residents, the majority of council members favored a public information campaign instead of the rule of law to encourage more recycling of plastic bags.

“Questions were raised tonight that make me uncomfortable,” said Town Council member Nathan Calouro, who noted several times his preference for “education not legislation.”

Council Chairwoman Mary Parella urged an ad hoc committee, formed during the meeting, to find ways of increasing plastic bag recycling. Currently, residents can return plastic bags to large retailers in town.

The three council members in opposition to the ordinance fixated on Rhode Island’s current recycling rate for plastic bags. Krystal Noiseux of the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC) said the figure was nearly unknowable because of a lack of a tracking system and reporting by stores that collect them. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. recycling rate for plastic bags and other stretchy plastic is 12 percent.

Noiseux said bags collected through the state ReStore program are shipped overseas and to Virginia, where they are made into soles for footwear and artificial wood products. RIRRC, Noiseux said, opposes a bill (pdf) currently in the General Assembly that seeks a statewide plastic bag ban, because the law would end the ReStore collection program.

Channing Jones, of the advocacy group Environment Rhode Island, said the intent of the ban isn’t to increase recycling but to force consumers to switch to reusable bags. Most importantly, he said, a ban eliminates an item that harms marine life and human health. Jones turned in a petition signed by 17 businesses in support of the ban. The policy is gaining momentum across New England, as Barrington and several other New England communities recently adopted such a ban.

“It’s a policy that’s tried and true and it works,” Jones said.

Council member Timothy Sweeney proposed the ban because of concerns that the bags were damaging Mount Hope Bay and Bristol Harbor. He urged the council to draft an ordinance similar to the one passed in Barrington last October.

“Do we have the courage here to stand on the right side of history and morality? I think we should move forward with the plastic bag ban ordinance,” he said.

The council’s answer was not now.

“I don’t think everyone is ready at this point,” Sweeney said after the council declined his proposal. “It’s certainly understandable.”

The most compelling testimony of the meeting belonged to Walter Burke, director of Parks and Recreation. Burke said there is no question that plastic bags are a detriment to the environment. On a recent morning he said he picked up 37 discarded plastic bags across the street from a local grocery store. Seagulls pull the bags from Dumpsters and the wind blows them into the water, Burke said.

“We can say it is not the responsibility of government to control our lives. But the facts remain the same. We are slowly destroying our environment,” Burke said. “Where are our social activists, our young people, our power of the people to demand social change? This is the checks and balances we really need. The people of Bristol should be demanding this change directly to Stop & Shop or Seabra or Sip ‘n Dip or anyone else they feel necessary. But in their absence, and there is an absence, and for the sake of Narragansett Bay and the amazing wildlife who cannot speak for themselves, as well as the environment of Bristol, I personally support and commend Councilman Sweeney for this initiative.”


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  1. To the Editor

    I would like to take this opportunity to thank Councilman Sweeney for his courage in organizing the Town Hall workshop last night (Feb 20th) regarding a possible thin film plastic check out bag ban ordinance. Councilman Sweeney showed true leadership bringing a topic of debate to the chambers of the Bristol Town Hall. Also, thank you to the other councilors that took the time to consider this important issue. The topic spurred great discussion and debate over how a town or society should or should not respond to the issue of plastic bags in our environment. I personally enjoyed the discussion and listening to the many citizens who stood up to offer their thoughts, concerns, questions, and opinions on the subject. I was also impressed by the number of people that took the time to drive in from other areas of the state, such as Providence and Newport to offer their support and thoughts despite waiting for almost three hours as the plastic bag ordinance was the last portion of the workshop.
    I think its safe to say almost everyone in the room felt plastic in the environment is a problem and a major one; however there was much divide on HOW to deal with the problem.
    So what do we do about this? Do we take the approach of sit and wait for the State to make a ruling? Or perhaps do we take some action and say “ Not in our back yard”? Many great suggestions were raised in the discussion, such as more community out reach and education, and even expansion of the current plastic bag recycling program. Much of the majority opposition seemed to stem from a non-legislation perspective deeming this issue not suitable or appropriate for legislation. Why not? Governments and leaders around the world legislate all the time on matters such as public safety, the well being of our schools and children, and even on environmental issues. Should our leaders not have passed in to our town legislation a noise ordinance? How about cross walks, speed limits, and stop signs? Consider this, do we want to teach our children that the well being of our environment or environmental responsibility as a whole does not deserve legislation? Take a look around the United States and the World. If one of our largest cities (Los Angeles 2nd) in the USA felt it was worth doing, it must certainly be worth legislation. In fact 65 cities and counties in California alone have adopted ordinances along with other major cities such as Seattle and entire states such as Hawaii. If these major cities and states feel it’s worth legislation perhaps Rhode Island or Bristol with some of the most pristine coastlines and seafood in the world should consider it as well.

    Ethan M Tucker

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