Middletown Bans the Bag; Could Portsmouth be Next?

Video and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

MIDDLETOWN, R.I. — Middletown is the latest community to kick the plastic-bag habit. On May 1, the Town Council unanimously approved a ban on thin-film plastic bags offered by retailers. The ban takes effect Nov. 1 to coincide with Newport’s bag ban.

Newport approved its ban March 8. Barrington was the first community in Rhode Island to pass a bag ban, in 2012. Like Newport and Barrington, Middletown is a coastal community whose character and economy depend on clean shorelines and healthy sea life.

Middletown, however, has a larger retail sector than both communities, with two mammoth grocery stores, many mid-size retailers and a slew of fast-food and independently owned restaurants. However, no businesses spoke against the bag ban at the May 1 meeting or at a meeting two weeks earlier. The ordinance, however, includes a hardship provision that allows businesses to seek a waiver from the town administrator and the Town Council.

Several youngsters spoke in favor of the bag ban.

Simar Randhawa was one of several kids to testify at the May 1 Middletown Town Council meeting. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News photos)

Simar Randhawa was one of several kids to testify at the May 1 Middletown Town Council meeting. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News photos)

“I think all of us can survive without plastic,” said Simar Randhawa, a seventh-grader at Gaudet Middle School.

She said many people care about preventing fish and other sea life from ingesting plastic, but they fail to act. “So now it’s our turn to make a move. It’s our turn to save (the marine environment) for future generations.”

Other supporters of the ban said they were influenced by a recent screening of the documentary “A Plastic Ocean.” A scene in the movie shows a growing global phenomenon of burning plastic bags for fuel despite the release of toxins.

One resident spoke against the bag ban. Ken Cordeiro said he disapproves of the Town Council telling business how to operate.

“I don’t like fair trade; I like free trade,” Cordeiro said. “If you see a plastic bag on the ground, just pick it up.”

Middletown has been an early adopter of innovative waste-management practices. A decade ago, it became the first community in the state to adopt a trash and recycling collection system known as "pay-as-you-throw." The system requires residents to buy special bags for trash collection and thereby create a financial incentive to recycle more material. As a result, Middletown has one of the highest recycling rates in Rhode Island. The bag-ban ordinance doesn't mandate a fee on paper bags, but retailers are allowed to assess one.

In March, the Town Council approved an ordinance that prohibits beach vendors from offering plastic bags and foam containers.

Dave McLaughlin, an Aquidneck Island resident and founder of the environmental advocacy group Clean Ocean Access, orchestrated both bans.

He isn't calling for additional bans on many of the harmful item he finds during beach cleanups, but instead favors awareness campaigns that get the public thinking about everyday disposable, yet harmful, items such as plastic straws and party balloons.

This summer, Clean Ocean Access will launch a “Skip the Straw” initiative that encourages restaurant patrons to request beverages without straws.

“It’s not about more bans on plastic,” McLaughlin said. “It’s about awareness and shifting to sustainable choices and changing behavior.”

Portsmouth, however, is next up in the bag-ban effort. McLaughlin expects to talk with the Town Council soon about becoming the last community on Aquidneck Island to ban plastic shopping bags.

“We’re hopeful, but it’s another whole workout,” McLaughlin said.

Although bills have been introduced in the General Assembly for a statewide bag ban, there is little political will to pass one.

Dave McLaughlin of Clean Ocean Access spoke before the Town Council.

Dave McLaughlin of Clean Ocean Access spoke before the Town Council.

Several supporters of the bag ban were moved by the documentary 'A Plastic Ocean.'

Several supporters of the bag ban were moved by the documentary 'A Plastic Ocean.'