Government

Support Grows for Statewide Plastic Bag Ban

PROVIDENCE — Efforts to pass a statewide ban on plastic retail bags recently intensified, as support swells for the proposed legislation.

At a March 20 Statehouse hearing, a range of supporters, from high-school students to veteran environmentalists, pressed a sympathetic House committee to curtail the use of an everyday item they say fouls neighborhoods and threatens natural places, most notably Narragansett Bay.

“There is a change coming,” University of Rhode Island senior Margaret Martino said. “We can be the first to make that change and have the Ocean State be the first state to ban plastic bags statewide.”

So far, more than 100 municipalities across the county, including all of Los Angeles County, have placed restrictions on plastic bags. Hawaii, also has a bag ban, but it was enacted island by island rather than statewide.

In 2012, Barrington became the first Rhode Island community to pass such a ban.

Last year, a similar bill calling for a statewide ban died in committee. The latest version would ban all check-out plastic shopping bags but would exclude so-called “barrier bags,” such as in-store bags used for produce and meat. Dry cleaning bags and traditional garbage bags also would be excluded. Stores would be allowed to charge for paper bags.

Fines would range from a written notice to $300 for a third offense. Enforcement would be decided by each city and town. Last year’s bill tasked the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) with enforcement.

Rep. Maria Cimini, D-Providence, the lead sponsor on the bill, received applause after her testimony. She said reducing plastic bags would help tourism and wildlife, and inspire local companies to make reusable bags.

“I think we’ve given plastic bags their due for a couple of decades of work,” Cimini said. “We’ve seen that they are not ideal for the environment.”

She said she spoke with many municipal leaders who support a ban but would prefer that the mandate be enacted at the state level.

The bill clearly had support from the House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources, including Chairman Arthur Handy, D-Providence. Opposition was less vocal than in 2013, but lobbyists from the Rhode Island Hospitality Association and the American Progressive Bag Alliance spoke against the bill. The Rhode Island Food Dealers Association and Rhode Island Retail Federation, which represents Walmart and other national chains, submitted written testimony in opposition to the bill.

Terrance Martiesian of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association said seniors and diners want plastic bags for takeout food. “Plastic is strong, durable, it doesn’t break,” he said.

The longevity of plastic was a matter of concern.

“Plastic never biodegrades. It does break apart into tiny pieces over time” said Channing Jones of Environment Rhode Island, the principal advocacy group behind the Barrington bag ban and the call for a statewide ban. 

Jones and his group submitted more than 10,000 signatures from Rhode Islanders, including 150 business owners, in favor of the ban. During his testimony, Jones described how tiny pieces of plastic bags absorb toxins when they are suspended in waterways such as Narragansett Bay. The toxic plastic is then ingested by marine life.

Chris Clarendon, owner of Seapowet Shellfish in Tiverton, said plastic in the Sakonnet River is a health risk. “Plastic micro-particles are very bad for my oysters,” he said.

Support also came from the Environment Council of Rhode Island, Progressive Democrats of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Chapter of the Sierra Club, Clean Ocean Access, and Clean Water Action. The legislation also drew support from groups absent from last year’s campaign, such as the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, Save The Bay and Brown University Democrats. 

Barrington Town Council Vice President Kate Weymouth and Cynthia Fuller, head of the town’s Conservation Commission, said the state’s first bag ban has been a success. “In 15 months, I have yet to receive a complaint,” Weymouth said.

Two high-school students from the East Bay MET School in Newport also spoke in favor of the legislation. “Oceans of mass plastic and waste are slowly being created,” Carly Mello said. “It’s happening for our own selfish benefit.”

High-school teacher Trish Garland compared plastic bags to the ban on indoor smoking. “Fifteen years from now people will be amazed that when we went to the store to buy a plastic jug of laundry detergent, that it was placed in a plastic bag so that we could carry it 50 feet to our car.”

The bill was held for further study. A hearing has yet to be held for the Senate bill (S2314).

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  1. Good coverage of the hearing!
    The Hospitality Association also opposed the composting bill phasing in restaurants having to compost their food scraps. Perhaps some members of the environment community should reach out to this group as a clean image for RI could boost tourism and the restaurant industry.

  2. The article "Support Grows for RI Plastic Bag Ban" poignantly covers a topic that is important to our environment and how out of control plastic is in our everyday life. It is a matter of convenience that grocery, shopping, restaurants any other business, depend on this man made tool. We absolutely have to curb the wastefulness of plastic bags in our society as well as disposing of them properly for recycling. However, there are those of us consumers who do use plastic bags in a good way. For 25 years I have been using the grocery store plastic bags as garbage bags in my waste cans throughout my house. They are small enough, and once full , placed in the garbage can at the curb. My family of 5 usually doesn't even fill a large can as most of our garbage is in recycled materials and we compost for the garden. I utilize the paper bags from grocery stores as our paper recycling bags which works well so i don't have to mess around with string and tying up papers. If the plastic bags are banned, I will now have to purchase heavy duty plastic garbage bags from big name companies that make an exorbitant profit off oil based manufacturing that pollutes the environment. Are these companies going to see record high profits as people will be increasing their purchases? Are we looking at banning the production of these plastic bags as well? I'm not sure that is what we want to encourage either. More importantly, I think we have to include in this ban Styrofoam, which is probably worse to the environment. Who is one of the biggest users of styrofoam in New England? My bet is with dear old Dunkin Donuts! If we can get rid of their wasteful Styrofoam cups,(do you really have to double cup that iced coffee?) that would definitely clean up the environment. I see more DD styrofoam cups laying around the streets, parks, ball fields, and parking lots than plastic bags floating by. Where is the legislation on this issue? If plastic bags have to go, so do the Styrofoam cups!!

  3. Recently, Channing Jones and his staff at Environment Rhode Island he'll a plastic bag scavenger hunt to document I.photos of plastic bags left to blow, drift and impact the local communities of Rhode Island to demonstrate tne need for this legislation.

    Teams of volunteers of all ages, many of them families with children spanned across the state in search of abandoned and wandering bags. The hunt included finding bags alon roadsides, on streets and backyards, along st reams, riverbanks, ocean and bayside shoreline as well as clinging to stray tree branches caught in their path. The teams made signs that stated their respective community supported the ban. The teams also had to photo someone using a reuseable bag.

    I joined a mother and daughter team from Coventry and headed to Woonsocket, RI. There we were hard pressed to find a plastic bag, perhaps because Woonsocket has a good recycling program and perhaps educated their constituents about the benefits to the community from recycling. However, we still found some in parking lots, along the Blackstone River, in a city park, on the streets and in yards. We also found support for the ban and a local arts and craft store, Yen's Handmades where the proprietor remakes disposable plastic bags into a handy reusable bag. Yen's also make their own paper bags that they give customers with recycled paper.
    ,
    We also found a plastic bag being repurposed in a squirrel's nest in a tree. What if baby squirrel gets its head wrapped in the bag? And what of the tourists visiting the Blackstone Valley for it historical and natural resources — the plastic bags as well as other trash detract from that experience.

    However, this may be a two-pronged issue. First encouraging the use of reusable bags and the proper disposal of the plastic bags is still much needed. Stop n Shop bags found along roadsides with wording that encourages recycling the bag, but yet it still left to blow about streets and yards. Secondly, as more people bring reusable bags with them when they shop, retail stores may save money and not need to be concerned with the need for plastic bags. So why not begin now by banning plastic bags, more of us will be more apt to remember to carry reusable bags even for food carry-out.
    As Laurie Joannette of Woonsocket stated, "I am in support of banning plastic bags. I am tired of seeing them in my trees."

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