Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — As expected, the City Council approved a ban on plastic retail bags at its March 15 meeting. But the vote didn't go smoothly, exposing the occasional rift between the mostly white environmental-advocacy movement and low-income communities of color.
Mayor Jorge Elorza, who previously supported the bag ban, now says he will review the ordinance.
On March 1, at the first of two hearings, the City Council approved the ban, 14-0, with no complaints from the public or council members. At the latest meeting, however, four council members objected to the mandatory fee on paper bags and reusable bags offered by retailers.
Council member Mary Kay Harris, representing parts of South Providence and the West End, said, “This is going to cause a burden on a few, whether it’s one or two people, whether it’s the vulnerable, whether it’s the elders, whether it’s the homeless, I think to roll it out right now I’m uncomfortable with it. I’d like to have my name withdrawn at this point because I cannot vote with a clear conscience."
Council member Carmen Castillo said she was pulling her name as a sponsor, because she received several calls from neighbors in her district of Elmwood and South Elmwood who objected to the fee.
Council member Sabina Matos, representing Olneyville, Silver Lake, Valley and the West End, abstained from voting after noting that other Rhode Island communities with a bag ban, such as Barrington, don't have a mandatory fee on alternative bags offered by retailers.
Council member Luis Aponte, representing South Providence and Washington Park, endorsed the bag ban, saying the ordinance addresses environmental racism by benefiting the environment and low-income neighborhoods.
“The two issues that have been stated do not conflict with one another,” he said.
His district, he said, has some of the poorest residents in the city and fees on shopping bags strain family budgets.
“But also understand that the same low-income communities, those same poor folks, are the ones that bear the burden of environmental racism and degradation," Aponte said. "Probably to a greater extent than any other group. So this, to me, is an important step in the right direction.”
The primary sponsor of the bill, Jo-Ann Ryan, reminded the council that the fee was discussed during a public committee hearing and that assurances were made that all districts, and in particular low-income neighborhoods, would receive outreach and education about reusable bags. The ban doesn't take effect for 12 months and offers exemptions for businesses and families that would be financially burdened by the ban. The citizens group Zero Waste Providence is also seeking sponsors to pay for free reusable bags that can be donated to low-income residents.
Between the two City Council meetings, the Racial and Environmental Justice Committee (REJC), a citizens group overseen by the city’s Office of Sustainability, urged council members to delay voting on the ordinance until the fee issue could be settled.
“This is an imposition of yet another financial burden by the government, but not one that helps meet basic needs,” according to a REJC statement.
Residents without vehicles and public-transit riders will be most hurt by the fee, according to REJC. Corporations should pay the cost, not consumers, the group says.
“We are currently researching models that will support the eradication of plastic waste as well as benefit Providence communities of color,” according to REJC.
Members of the committee told ecoRI News that they raised the concerns with Zero Waste Providence but that their request to drop the fee was unanswered.
Aaron Jaehnig, chapter chair for the Rhode Island Sierra Club, agreed that there should have been more time to address the financial impact of the bag ban.
“The REJC’s mission is to ensure the voices of black, indigenous and people of color, often ignored by movements led by large environmental conservation groups such as this one, are amplified and centered in sustainability conversations," Jaehnig said. "To ignore the REJC’s request, for a slightly extended timeline to ensure larger stakeholder input from the most impacted working class communities of color, is an embarrassment and does more harm than good for long-term movement building. It is not a victory when the solution to an environmental issue also disproportionately impacts the same communities that have been historically most impacted by environmental injustice.”
Ban supporters, such as Zero Waste Providence, say the fee is an incentive for shoppers to start using reusable bags rather than relying on paper bags or other types of bags handed out by retailers. Making and shipping these bags generates pollution and is an added cost for the store owner. Those costs are then passed on to consumers.
The City Council voted as follows: 11 in favor, one opposed, two abstained, and one absent (Nicholas Narducci).
Elorza was initially in favor of the ordinance with the mandatory fee on the alternative checkout bags. The mayor has 10 days after passage to either sign, not sign or veto the bill. If Elorza vetoes the ordinance, a 10-vote majority by the City Council overrides the veto.
Providence is the first Rhode Island municipality to pass a plastic bag ban with a mandatory fee on alternative checkout bags. Bans without the fee are in place in Barrington, Block Island, Bristol, Jamestown, Middletown, Portsmouth and Newport. Narragansett, North Kingstown, Tiverton and Warren are also considering bag bans.