Bristol Backs Off Plastic Bag Ban

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

BRISTOL, R.I. — Three of the four Town Council members said no Wednesday night to moving forward with a ban on plastic bags. After hearing from waste experts, environmentalists and local residents, the majority of council members favored a public information campaign instead of the rule of law to encourage more recycling of plastic bags.

“Questions were raised tonight that make me uncomfortable,” said Town Council member Nathan Calouro, who noted several times his preference for “education not legislation.”

Council Chairwoman Mary Parella urged an ad hoc committee, formed during the meeting, to find ways of increasing plastic bag recycling. Currently, residents can return plastic bags to large retailers in town.

The three council members in opposition to the ordinance fixated on Rhode Island’s current recycling rate for plastic bags. Krystal Noiseux of the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC) said the figure was nearly unknowable because of a lack of a tracking system and reporting by stores that collect them. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. recycling rate for plastic bags and other stretchy plastic is 12 percent.

Noiseux said bags collected through the state ReStore program are shipped overseas and to Virginia, where they are made into soles for footwear and artificial wood products. RIRRC, Noiseux said, opposes a bill (pdf) currently in the General Assembly that seeks a statewide plastic bag ban, because the law would end the ReStore collection program.

Channing Jones, of the advocacy group Environment Rhode Island, said the intent of the ban isn't to increase recycling but to force consumers to switch to reusable bags. Most importantly, he said, a ban eliminates an item that harms marine life and human health. Jones turned in a petition signed by 17 businesses in support of the ban. The policy is gaining momentum across New England, as Barrington and several other New England communities recently adopted such a ban.

“It’s a policy that’s tried and true and it works,” Jones said.

Council member Timothy Sweeney proposed the ban because of concerns that the bags were damaging Mount Hope Bay and Bristol Harbor. He urged the council to draft an ordinance similar to the one passed in Barrington last October.

“Do we have the courage here to stand on the right side of history and morality? I think we should move forward with the plastic bag ban ordinance," he said.

The council's answer was not now.

“I don’t think everyone is ready at this point,” Sweeney said after the council declined his proposal. “It’s certainly understandable.”

The most compelling testimony of the meeting belonged to Walter Burke, director of Parks and Recreation. Burke said there is no question that plastic bags are a detriment to the environment. On a recent morning he said he picked up 37 discarded plastic bags across the street from a local grocery store. Seagulls pull the bags from Dumpsters and the wind blows them into the water, Burke said.

“We can say it is not the responsibility of government to control our lives. But the facts remain the same. We are slowly destroying our environment," Burke said. "Where are our social activists, our young people, our power of the people to demand social change? This is the checks and balances we really need. The people of Bristol should be demanding this change directly to Stop & Shop or Seabra or Sip ‘n Dip or anyone else they feel necessary. But in their absence, and there is an absence, and for the sake of Narragansett Bay and the amazing wildlife who cannot speak for themselves, as well as the environment of Bristol, I personally support and commend Councilman Sweeney for this initiative.”