Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — It was a busy week for bag bans in Rhode Island, as town councils in Bristol and Portsmouth outlawed plastic checkout bags, while the City Council overwhelming approved an ordinance at the first of two public hearings.
All three council votes advanced with little resistance. At its Feb. 26 meeting, the Portsmouth Town Council approved its ordinance 6-1, with the dissenter urging a more stringent ban. Bristol approved its ban Feb. 28, also by a 4-1 vote. The City Council advanced its ordinance March 1, with a 14-0 vote. It’s expected to fully pass the measure on March 15.
North Kingstown, Tiverton and Warren are also considering bag bans. The Portsmouth vote means that all of Aquidneck Island is covered by a prohibition on plastic checkout bags.
“The past week has been a whirlwind of emotions,” said David McLaughlin, executive director of Clean Ocean Access, the Middletown-based advocacy group and the organizing force behind most of the bag bans in Rhode Island.
Since 2012, bans have also been approved in Barrington, Block Island, Jamestown, Middletown and Newport. All are coastal communities and have made the health of marine habitat a central argument to passing bag bans.
“Eliminating these plastic bags is a significant first step in turning the tide on the excessive single-use plastic in our lives,” McLaughlin said. “The minor inconvenience and easy behavior change is worth it. The rest of the state is watching us and listening to us, and we are sending the right message by advocating for ocean health.”
The Providence bag ban is the most stringent of Rhode Island's ordinances, as it requires retailers to charge at least 10 cents for paper and reusable bags. The fee is an incentive for shoppers to bring reusable bags and thus reduce the volume of waste and recycling. Currently, only 5 percent of shoppers use reusable bags, according to several surveys.
At the March 1 City Council meeting, Lou Perrotti, director of conservation programs at Roger Williams Park Zoo, wore a suit of plastic bags in support of the ban. Plastic bags, he said, are a problem at the popular public park, littering zoo exhibits and park wetlands. Perrotti said he hopes the Providence law leads to a statewide ban.
City Council member Bryan Principe wants the backers of the initiative, such as the citizens ad hoc group Zero Waste Providence, to use their zeal to advance a statewide and even a national ban on plastic bags.
“I encourage you, especially in an election year, to take this message, take this energy and bring it to the General Assembly so its fair equal commerce across the state of Rhode Island,” Principe said.
If approved on March 15, the Providence ban would take effect in 12 months.
In recent years, bills for a statewide ban have been introduced in the General Assembly but have failed to get out of committee.
Council member Mary Kay Harris said education is necessary to create inclusivity, especially among residents who rely on plastic bags to carry their belongings.
“I’d like to see the education done in a way so that people will say to themselves that they no longer want to touch another plastic bag," she said.
Zero Waste Providence said it intends to work with the city to educate neighborhoods about the bag ban and, if it can raise the money, distribute 100,000 reusable bags.
Here are some shopping bag facts:
14 millions trees are cut to make the 10 billion grocery bags Americans use annually, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
380 billion plastic bags are used by American consumers every year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
A plastic bag is used for about 12 minutes, according to the EPA.