R.I. Plastic Bag Ban Bill Criticized at Hearing

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Supporters vastly outnumbered opponents at a recent hearing of a bill banning plastic checkout bags in Rhode Island. One business and opposing lobbyists, however, drew sympathy from some members of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Agriculture.

Sixteen advocates, plus the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Donna Nesselbush, D-Pawtucket, spoke of how plastic bags pollute urban and rural regions, coastal areas and Narragansett Bay. Nesselbush said plastic bags are also a product consumers never had a chance to approve but continually collect as litter.

“When I was a kid we didn’t even have plastic bags. It wasn’t even an option," she said. “As much as they are a convenience, they are killing the environment."

Last November, Brookline, Mass., banned plastic checkout bags and Styrofoam food containers. Carol Oldham, a member of the town’s governing board, said banning plastic bags lowers the clean-up costs for municipalities and environmental groups.

Brookline resident Clint Richmond testified at the recent hearing that plastic bags derive from natural gas. “Every plastic bag you buy or use is a vote for hydrofracking,” he said.

Environment Rhode Island submitted a petition signed by 7,300 Rhode Islanders in favor of the ban, an additional 137 business owners signed the petition.

Students from Brown University and Salve Regina University also testified in favor of the ban. “I want to feel proud not just for my town but my entire state,” said Brown undergraduate Joseph Sacks, of Barrington. The town became the first in the state to enact a bag ban last October.

Any sense of positive momentum for the ban shifted once business interests testified.

Donna Dempsey, lobbyist for the American Progressive Bag Alliance, argued against the ban, claiming paper bags have a larger carbon footprint than plastic bags. She also made reference to the overhyped concern that reusable bags “harbor dangerous bacteria." Advocates, she said, are misinformed. “I think it’s emotion versus science.”

The father and son owners of Packaging & More Inc. in Central Falls solicited the agreeable comments from Senate committee members David Bates, R-Barrington, William Conley Jr., D-East Providence, and Stephen Archambault, D-Smithfield.

“If this bill passed it would be completely catastrophic to my business,” said Antonio E. Fonseca, a second-generation owner of Packaging & More, a bag supply company. To comply with a bag ban, he said, the Central Falls business wouldn’t have the space to stock re-usable and paper bags. New employees would also need to be hired to maintain the supply.

“Each time this bill comes up you put me and my family at danger,” he said.

Fonseca’s father, Antonio S. Fonseca, said the ban won’t work. “It’s not going to change anything.” Instead he encouraged schools to increase education about recycling plastic bags.

Christopher M. Reddy, a scientist in the department of marine chemistry and geochemistry at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, said the bag ban advocates’ portrayal of the problem was “overhyped.” Reddy urged a ban on Styrofoam instead, and said nitrogen pollution in Narragansett Bay was a greater problem.

“Nitrogen is something we should be concerned about the most," he said. "It’s doesn’t choke our turtles so we don’t get excited."

Lobbyist Paul DeRoche, of the Rhode Island Retail Federation, which represents many of the large chains, also opposed the bill. He solicited laughs and near backslaps from several of the senators during his brief warning of the hardships the ban would cause to businesses. 

The Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation also submitted a letter in opposition to the ban, writing it would remove recycling opportunities for the public to dispose of plastic bags and other plastic film. The letter also noted that plastic bags have many secondary uses, such as trash can liners and pet waste bags.

“Pet owners will have to make a choice between buying specific bags for clean up after their pets and not cleaning up after them," the letter read. "Human nature suggests that many if not most will choose simply not to clean up their pet’s waste. This is a potential human health issue that should be considered.”

The bill was held for future consideration. A companion bill in the House of Representatives is expected to have a hearing in the coming weeks.