By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
BARRINGTON, R.I. — Rhode Island’s first municipal ban on foam containers and other plastic packaging has moved closer to reality with the preliminary adoption of an ambitious plan to rid the community of a wide range of plastics.
There was little opposition to the proposed ordinance during a Jan. 23 two-hour public workshop. Instead, the majority of the meeting, hosted by the Town Council, Conservation Commission and Economic Development Commission, was spent clarifying which items will be banned and who must abide by the restrictions.
According to the proposed rules, the bans apply to retailers, restaurants, stores, public and private schools, as well as events at those schools.
The ban on foam and many types of single-use plastics also applies to Barrington Beach and other town park and recreation areas.
Restaurants, food trucks, caterers, private clubs, and schools are prohibited from using foam containers and trays, polystyrene utensils, and certain types of non-recyclable plastic containers. In their place, establishments are encouraged to provide reusable containers and utensils or items made from compostable, biodegradable, and/or recyclable materials.
Retailers such as supermarkets, pharmacies, and convenience stores are also prohibited from selling or giving out foam food service ware and coolers.
Foam packing peanuts are banned for sale or use by retailers. The bans don’t apply to items packaged outside of the establishment.
Businesses may seek exemptions for specific banned items from the town manager. If the ordinance is approved, the rules for retailers start July 1. Restaurants and all other entities must comply by Jan. 1, 2020.
First-time violators will be issued a written warning. A second violation results in a $150 fine. A third violation within a year costs $300.
The only pushback against the bans came from the owners of Sowams Variety & Restaurant on Sowams Road. Muhanad Al Chalabi and Aseel Al-Sinayyid weren’t opposed to the ordinance but worried they would have to forgo the popular round plastic trays used for take-out platters.
Town Council president Michael Carroll assured Al Chalabi and Al-Sinayyid that they could apply for an exemption if an acceptable alternative couldn’t be found.
“We’re trying to work with our businesses. So we are not going to drive anybody out of business,” Carroll said.
Timothy Brennan, owner of Two Little Fish Seafood Restaurant in Westerly, was invited to the hearing to speak about his transition from plastic to more sustainable bags, cups, and utensils.
Brennan said costs at his beachfront restaurant increased slightly, while revenue rose well above the added expense, which he attributed to customers who appreciate his concern for the the environment and community. He said one of the unexpected benefits is that customers post the restaurant’s pledge to sustainability on social media.
“Think of it not so much of a burden, but as an opportunity,” Brennan said.
Barrington’s proposed rules are modeled on a foam ban in Brookline, Mass. Clint Richmond, who serves on Brookline’s solid waste advisory board, wrote his town’s regulations and helped Barrington craft its ordinance.
“We have a lot of options,” Richmond said during a presentation. “It’s possible to make this change. It’s better for the community.”
Richmond noted that prior to the 1980s most packaging was made of paper, glass, and metal, materials that are easy to recycle and have a relatively benign impact on the environment if discarded.
But less expensive, lightweight plastic alternatives abruptly gained prominence. Many of these plastics, such as straws, bags, and Styrofoam containers and cups, are difficult or impossible to recycle. They create health and environmental hazards and never biodegrade in nature.
With little or no value for used plastics, consumers and municipalities have been saddled with the cost and infrastructure to recycle and landfill these materials, Richmond said. Recycling rules and market demand for used plastics are ever changing and confusing, while creating massive litter. As a result, he said, plastic pollution is proliferating, harming wildlife, permeating the food chain, and showing up in the blood and feces of humans.
The movement to ban or restrict plastic bags and packaging has been gaining acceptance in recent years. Across the country there are more than 600 laws restricting or outlawing plastic bags and other plastics. The fossil-fuel and chemical industries have been fighting back, helping eight states pass laws that prohibit municipal bans on bags and plastics.
Town Council member Kate Weymouth and Joseph Roberts of the Conservation Commission were integral in passing Barrington’s bag ban in 2012. It was the first Rhode Island municipality to pass a ban on plastic retail bags. Since then, 10 other communities have adopted bans and a statewide ban is expected to get backing from Gov. Gina Raimondo this year in the General Assembly.
Barrington’s latest ordinance was approved unanimously. The Town Council is scheduled to vote on the proposal at its Feb. 4 meeting.