Momentum Builds for R.I. Plastic Bag Ban

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — A statewide ban on plastic grocery bags may not happen this year, but some compelling reasons for getting rid of the petroleum-based bags were presented at a Statehouse hearing April 25. Proponents believe that a bag ban could be in Rhode Island's future.

Regionally, momentum is building for plastic bag bans. Barrington passed a two-year ban last October. Brookline, Mass., and Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass., have passed such bans. A statewide ban is also moving forward in the Massachusetts Legislature.

Here are some of the arguments, pro and con, heard at the April 25 hearing of the House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources:

Rep. Maria Cimini, D-Providence, made changes to her bill such as dropping a mandatory 10-cent fee on paper bags and keeping the statewide in-store bag collection bins. The move earned approval from the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation, which had previously opposed the bill.

Cimini estimated that Rhode Island stores use more than 164 million plastic bags annually. “We don’t know how many (plastic bags) are being recycled," she said. "We do know you see them all over the place.”

Despite the convenience of plastic bags, Cimini said, “People have been carrying things around for centuries. Plastic bags have only been around for decades.”

Oyster farmer Cindy West of Narragansett said she pulls up plastic bags daily from oyster beds in salt ponds. “The bags just smother the marine life on the bottom," she said.

Channing Jones of Environment Rhode Island was the force behind the Barrington ban, collecting petition signatures and rallying community support. At the hearing, he argued that bans aren't about recycling rates or the carbon footprint and pollution created by paper and plastic bags. The goal, he said, is to get consumers to embrace reusable bags. Plastic bags are simply a nuisance to the environment that harm wildlife and hurt tourism, he said.

“Banning (plastic bags) is a commonsense way to address that problem,” Jones said. “It’s an effective policy with little need for enforcement.”

Environment Rhode Island has collected 7,300 signatures on a petition for the state ban. One hundred and thrity businesses also have signed the petition.

Bill Kitsilis, owner of Angelo’s Palace Pizza in Cumberland, brought in seven large paper bags filled with a $109 take-out order to show his opposition to the bag ban. The switch to paper bags added $2.05 to the order, he said. Plastic bags are less expensive and reduce the number of bags needed for take-out food. Instead of a plastic bag ban, Kitsilis prefers incentives that encourage businesses to try alternatives.

“It’s just not realistic to figure out how many bags an order will be,” he said. “It’s just not good for business.”

The Rhode Island Retailers Federation, which represents Walmart and other chain retailers, also opposes the ban. “This is more about jobs than plastic bags,” lobbyist Paul DeRoche said.

Cimini noted that a need for new reusable bags can also create jobs through innovation.

Anthony Fonseca, co-owner of a bag distributor in Central Falls, has been the most visible opponent to the ban. He believes that innovation and education will eventually eliminate the problems associated with plastic bags. A ban, he said, is an "impediment to business in the state.”

Several members of the House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources expressed support for the bill, which was held for further study. A Senate bag ban bill was heard April 4.

Proponents of the bag ban don’t expect the ban to pass this year. But the ban may be part of a comprehensive waste reform plan under consideration at the Statehouse. It could also be included in a marine debris bill that focuses on extended producer responsibility, which requires manufactures and retailers to assume greater involvement in the disposal of their products and their packaging.