Students Bolster Call to Ban Plastic Shopping Bags

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Juanita Sanchez High School senior Carlos Mendez: 'Disposable plastic bags are major threat to Rhode Island.' (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News staff)

Juanita Sanchez High School senior Carlos Mendez: 'Disposable plastic bags are major threat to Rhode Island.' (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News staff)

PROVIDENCE — Is 2015 the year for a statewide ban on plastic shopping bags? A Feb. 5 hearing for a bill that would prohibit retail checkout bags didn’t present many new talking points, pro or con, but it did offer a few new elements that suggest a ban might be in Rhode Island’s near future.

The most novel viewpoint came from freshman Rep. Carlos Tobon, D-Pawtucket, who compared a bag ban to the anti-smoking movement and the trend toward paperless offices.

“It’s a changing environment, a changing culture,” Tobon said. “Maybe this is something that some time in the future this might just be the norm.”

Rhode Island, he said, is poised to join other states looking to ban plastic shopping bags. Last year, California became the first state to pass a statewide ban, although the law may be challenged by a referendum. Both Massachusetts and Connecticut are expected to introduce bag ban bills this year.

“The clear thing here is,” Tobon said, “if we’re moving forward as a society we have to start looking at options.”

Tobon is one of two freshman representatives on the House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources to voice support for the legislation. Rep. Aaron Rugenberg, D-Providence, noted that several business owners in his district favor the legislation.

The movement was bolstered by students from the Juanita Sanchez High School in Providence. Fifteen seniors chose the bag ban as an advocacy issue for a class project. Students promoted the ban in the community, and made and sold reusable bags.

“We got so engaged in it we just kept going,” student Luisa Alvarado said after the recent hearing.

During the hearing, three students focused on the long-term environmental impacts of plastic litter. Carlos Mendez noted that plastic bags end up in the water, where they threaten seals, turtles, birds and clams.

“Disposable plastic bags are major threat to Rhode Island,” he said.

The Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC) offered the most interesting argument against a ban. The operator of the Central Landfill in Johnston opposes a ban on plastic bags and instead recommends a plastic-bag fee.

The position is a reversal from last year, when RIRRC dropped its opposition to the bag ban after a mandatory fee was removed from the legislation.

In a letter of opposition to the latest bill, RIRRC stated that market incentives and disincentives, such as fees and taxes, are the most effective way to reduce plastic-bag use.

“Material bans are difficult to enforce, in some cases impossible, do not result in 100 percent compliance and create addition bureaucratic burden,” wrote Sarah Kite-Reeves, RIRRC’s director of recycling services.

Kite-Reeves noted that banning plastic bags requires consumers to buy more bags for home use, where plastic shopping bags are often reused to line trash baskets and to collect pet waste.

A ban, she wrote, would create pressure from retailers to opt out of the state’s mandatory plastic-bag recycling program, known as ReStore. ReStore, however, doesn’t collect data on the efficacy of the program and no policing is done to oversee compliance by retailers. As a result, many retailers in the state simply don’t collect plastic bags.

RIRRC now believes a fee on plastic bags would fund compliance and education efforts and allow the program to include smaller retailers. Currently, only retailers with a combined 10,000 square feet of space at all stores must offer bins for plastic-bag collection.

RIRRC has said that plastic bags routinely clog its recycling sorting system, leading to delays and added expenses. The plastic bags that make their way into the state recycling facility are collected and sold. Last year, RIRRC received about $5,000 for the sale of collected plastic bags.

Data from an ongoing composition study of the landfill is expected in early 2016. The study is likely to show the presence of plastic bags in the state’s waste stream.

The Rhode Island Food Dealers Association, the Rhode Island Hospitality Association, the Rhode Island Tea Party and the Rhode Island Retail Federation also oppose the legislation.

For a third year, Antonio Fonseca, co-owner of bag distributor Packaging & More Inc. in Central Falls, testified that a bag ban would force him to add more capacity for trucking and find a new warehouse for paper bags, which he said require 20 times the space than plastic bags.

Fonseca had no patience for statistics that show the negative environmental impacts of plastic bags.

“I request this committee to recognize the circulation of continuous misinformation by re-introducing this bill,” he said. “Most proponents testimony on this issue is emotional and is based on zero data. Annual re-submittals of this bill only further some of these falsehoods.’

Some stats, however, are hard to refute. Rep. Lauren Carson, D-Newport, another new member of the General Assembly, noted that 4,326 plastic bags were collected by the advocacy group Clean Ocean Access from Rhode Island beaches in 2013 and 2014.

“We know that there is a problem with plastic,” Carson said. “Plastic is going to way outlive us on this planet. So, we really have to get creative and start looking at other ways to carry stuff around.”

The bill was held for further study.