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Survey Sparks Bag-Ban Debate in Barrington

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Roger Williams University students, from left, Nick Moon, Nathan Mitchell, Erika Johnson and Dylan Barrett, present their bag-ban survey results to the Barrington Town Council. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)BARRINGTON — The town is preparing for a showdown next year when its two-year ban on plastic check-out bag expires. Findings from a recent survey, presented Dec. 2 to the Town Council, offered ammunition for both sides of the bag-ban debate.

Forty-six percent of residents said the ban influenced them to shop with a reusable bags; 56 percent support the bag ban; 50 percent support a statewide ban; 28 percent said they shop less in Barrington because of the bag ban.

Barrington became the first community in the state, and one of a handful in New England, to pass a plastic-bag ban. The law took effect Jan. 1.

As part of an effort by the Conservation Commission to track the progress of the ban, four students from Roger Williams University conducted an online survey of local residents and business owners.

Online comments from the survey were mostly civil, yet many criticized Joseph Roberts, a member of the Conservation Commission, for writing and presenting the ban to the Town Council last year. It should be noted that Roberts, a professor at Roger Williams University, had his students conduct the survey as part of an independent study.

“I was called a fascist and a Marxist all in one breath, which is quite humorous,” Roberts said, referring to the survey comments.

Town Council members criticized the survey for not interviewing shoppers and business owners directly. Anonymous respondents, they said, didn't accurately represent the general public, and likely reflected the views of people passionate about the issue.

“Typically, when you do that (type of survey) you get people at the extremes,” said Town Council member William DeWitt, who cast the lone vote in opposition of the ban last year.

Without face-to-face canvassing, he said, the survey shows a selection bias. “The result of this study is we’ve probably done more harm than good," he said.

The council agreed more research is needed. Council member Cynthia Armour Coyne said she would like to know if the town is cleaner and the environment healthier because of the ban.

Roberts and Cynthia Fuller, chairwoman of the Conservation Commission, said tracking the environmental impacts with hard numbers is a challenge. They plan to conduct further research and reach out to Shaw’s, the town’s only grocery store, for feedback.

Council Vice President Kate Weymouth, the sponsor of the ordinance, said cleanliness isn't the point of the bag ban, but rather to get more shoppers to use reusable bags. “If there are other New England towns who have followed our example since then, that’s what I view as success.”

In Rhode Island at least, the Bristol Town Council tabled a bag ban proposal in February. The Warren Town Council heard a presentation, but didn't vote on the proposal. Jamestown has been trying to enact a voluntary ban. A bill for a statewide ban died in committee. Last month, a bill was introduced in Massachusetts banning petroleum-based check-out bags.

Roberts noted that bag-ban opponents who have threatened to shop in nearby Massachusetts might lose that option if the Bay State passes such a ban.

Amy O’Donnell, a recent Barrington resident and board member of the town's land trust, described the ban as part of a progressive movement “that requires a culture change to make a long-term impact.” “The power of this ban is the example it sets," she said. "We really need to stand firm, look at the results, figure out how we can better educate and communicate the message and move forward, because it’s such an important step that we’ve made.”

Fellow resident Kerri Payne wanted to be sure that there was more research into the survey, to find out if some shoppers were spending their money elsewhere because of the ban. “I would ask that we just take a hard look at how this is affecting our businesses,” she said.

Channing Jones of Environment Rhode Island, the advocacy group that lead the local bag-ban canvassing campaign, said in a recent phone interview that the survey results show the public wants a bag ban. “Generally, the survey is consistent with what we’ve done with our canvassing around the state, which is that Rhode Islanders support a statewide ban (on plastic bags)," he said.

This past summer Environment Rhode Island released a petition with 10,000 signatures of Rhode Islanders in favor of a ban.

The recent Barrington survey was answered by 358 residents and six businesses.

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