Statewide Bag Ban Back on R.I. Agenda

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The bag ban is back, with some new supporters. Last year’s sponsor of the House bill, former Rep. Maria Cimini, D-Providence, lost re-election in the Democratic primary. This year, East Providence Democrat Gregg Amore will sponsor the Plastic Waste Reduction Act.

For the past two years, the statewide ban on plastic shopping bags was led by the advocacy group Environment Rhode Island. This year, the environmental group Eco Youth United will join the campaign.

The bill hasn’t made it out of committee the past two years. Several bag ban bills in Massachusetts also died in committee last year. Since these legislative efforts failed, several bans have passed in the region. Most recently, Newton became the ninth community in Massachusetts to enact a ban. Connecticut also introduced a statewide bag ban bill this month.

Last September, California became the first state to sign a statewide ban into law. Hawaii technically became the first state to institute a ban, in 2013, but did so county by county. Barrington is the first and only community in Rhode Island with a ban.

The California ban shows the uphill battle statewide bans face. Since the California Legislature approved the ban, plastic-bag manufactures and distributers have collected enough signatures to overturn the ban through a statewide veto referendum in 2016.

The American Progressive Bag Alliance (APBA), a lobbyist group associated with chemical companies and bag manufacturers, has already raised a few million dollars for the campaign. In Rhode Island, the opposition has included the ABPA, the Rhode Island Retail Federation, Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC) and the bag distributor Packaging & More based in Central Falls.

Opponents say the ban is a financial burden on retailers and limits consumer choice. In 2013, RIRRC argued that the ban undermines a successful statewide bag-recycling program that uses bins at many stores. However, RIRRC supported the ban last year after language was removed for a 10-cent fee per bag.

Supporters of a Rhode Island ban have included the Environment Council of Rhode Island, Progressive Democrats of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Chapter of the Sierra Club, Clean Ocean Access, Clean Water Action, Audubon Society of Rhode Island and Save The Bay. Support has also come from oyster farmers.

The common themes among bag-ban supporters are that most plastic bags don’t get recycled. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 12 percent of plastic bags and plastic wrap are recycled. They are one of the top sources of pollution across the state and most significantly Narragansett Bay. A major concern is that plastic bags simply shred and break into tiny pieces and never fully decompose. As tiny fragments spread, they become part of the food chain.

According to the House bill, “Single-use plastic checkout bags are a primary source of this pollution, littering Rhode Island’s neighborhoods, parks, and roadsides, as well as aquatic and coastal environments, posing a direct threat to wildlife and accumulating in waterways. A ban on these plastic bags is the most effective way to eliminate this source of pollution.”

The proposed ban applies to checkout bags, and exempts bags for produce and meat, dry cleaning, frozen food, flowers, newspapers and those larger than 28 by 36 inches. The ban applies to retail stores, farmers markets, flea markets and restaurants.

The ban would be phased in. Large retailers would need to comply by Jan. 1, 2016, and small retailers by Jan. 1, 2017. Local police would enforce the bans. Penalties would range from a warning for a first offense to a $300 fine for a third offense.

The bill was referred to the House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources. A hearing hasn’t been scheduled.