By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
WARREN, R.I. — The first public, and perhaps shaky, step in enacting Rhode Islands first ban on plastic bags was taken at Tuesday night's Town Council meeting.
Council members were not enthusiastic about the prospect of banning check-out plastic bags, but kept the initiative alive by agreeing to hold the proposal for a second hearing at its next meeting.
Channing Jones of the advocacy group Environment Rhode Island asked the council to adopt the proposal as part of a statewide campaign to encourage cities and towns to enact the ban. So far, Warren is the first Rhode Island community to consider the proposal.
"This is a chance for Warren to be a leader in the state," Jones said.
Most plastic bags, he explained, aren't recycled. Instead, they create a public nuisance that threatens birds, fish and clams. Plastic bags never biodegrade, and simply shred into smaller bits that pollute the environment or are ingested by wildlife. "That's the problem, they last hundreds of years," he said.
The typical American uses about 500 plastic bags a year, according to the American Plastics Manufacturing Association.
Council member David Frerichs, owner of a local retail nursery and farm, said the ban might hurt the local economy. "This is very, very strict and it would create a lot of problems for the business community," he said.
Other council members suggested creating a public education campaign about recycling and offering incentives for reusable bags.
Jones noted that education programs haven't been a success, as only about 5 percent of plastic bags are recycled.
Environment Rhode Island's proposal seeks to ban plastic bags while adding a 5-cent fee for each paper bag. The funds are kept by the retailer to offset the cost for offering only paper bags. The proposal was endorsed by six local businesses, and included a petition signed by nearly 50 local residents.
Council member Scott Lial said the added cost to shoppers and taxpayers might not be wise given the poor state of the economy. He nevertheless suggested revising the ordinance with help from the town's attorney.
"I think the conversation shouldn't die," Lial said. "There's just more research that needs to be done."
A statewide ban and various incentives to encourage paper and reusable bag use has stalled several times at the Statehouse, most recently in 2010.
In 2008, Westport, Conn., became the first community in New England to ban plastic check-out bags. The ban does allow for the use of produce plastic bags and other in-store plastic bags.
About 10 cities, towns and counties in the United States have banned or partly banned plastic bags. Other Rhode Island communities, including Barrington, have expressed interest in proposing a ban. Jones expects to ramp up his campaign in other communities this summer.