Support Grows for R.I. Plastic Bag Ban

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Efforts to pass a statewide ban on plastic check-out 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).