By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
The proposed Rhode Island ban on plastic retail bags is dividing some in the environmental community.
Jonathan Berard, co-chair of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s Task Force to Tackle Plastics and executive director of Clean Water Action Rhode Island, is pushing back against other voices in the bag ban movement who say the proposed bill in the General Assembly is flawed.
Specifically, two bag ban proponents who helped pass bans in 14 Rhode Island cities and towns have claimed that the legislation would undermine municipal ordinances through its preemption clause. The stipulation means that a state ban, which they argue doesn’t include adequate restrictions on thick plastic bags, would encourage retailers and shoppers to opt for plastic bags dubbed reusable.
“If Rhode Island passes a state law that preempts local law, and allows thick plastic bags to return to the Ocean State,” said Dave McLaughlin, executive director of Middletown-based Clean Ocean Access, ”the state is sending a message to Big Plastic, American Chemistry Council, and all the other groups that are building methane crackers (natural-gas resin mills), that they can count on the Ocean State as a customer for plastic for years to come.”
The state’s current municipal bag bans have mandates that require thicker plastic bags, 4 millimeters or greater, must be 100 percent recyclable and have stitched handles. Stitched-handled bags are more expensive to manufacture and are generally reused by shoppers. Most handles on the controversial thick plastic bags, however, are part of the bag or are fused on. The bags are recyclable, labeled as reusable, and are cheaper to make than paper bags. Opponents say they increase pollution and are a disincentive for consumers to use reusable bags.
The 5-cent fee in the proposed state ban only applies to paper bags but not to thicker plastic bags, which means they could be offered to shoppers for free.
Berard said the notion that the statewide bag ban legislation, as written, would increase plastic-bag use is “mostly fearmongering” by opponents. He noted that thick plastic bags aren’t flourishing in Rhode Island communities that currently have bag bans.
“If a retailer were to distribute thicker bags, most would probably opt to charge for them … since they cost more,” he said.
Berard admitted that the current municipal bag ban ordinances are stronger than the state bill because of their stitched-handle requirement. But as effective policy, he said, they are weaker because they don’t include a mandatory fee on paper bags. The fee, he noted, promotes the use of reusable bags while also reducing costs for small businesses.
Bernard referred to cities and towns in California that amended their bag bans to include a fee on paper bags because shoppers weren’t making the switch to reusable bags. After fees were added, paper-bag use decreased as did the cost to businesses.
He also noted that Washington, D.C., charges a 5-cent fee on all disposable bags. After nearly a decade in place, the bag ban has led to a 70 percent reduction in disposable bag consumption, according to Berard.
However, environmentalists are noticing that the thicker plastic bags with fused handles are showing up at checkout lines for a 5-cent fee in communities that don’t have bag bans. These are the same plastic bags that Barrington outlawed after Shaw’s and CVS began offering them at local stores as reusable bags. The Barrington Town Council eventually revised the town’s bag ban ordinance to require a stitched handle and the provision has since been included in the 13 other bag bans across Rhode Island, including the recent Providence ban.
Both Shaw’s and CVS recently told ecoRI News that they strive to reduce plastic waste but won’t commit to banning the non-stitched-handle plastic bags, unless required to by state or local law.
Berard said Clean Water Action finds the language in the legislation that gives the state jurisdiction over municipal bag bans “problematic” because local communities are incubators for innovative public policy and should be allowed to address their waste and pollution problems.
But, he added, “passage of a state bill would reduce overall statewide disposable-bag usage considerably. And the specter of thin-film plastic bags being replaced at a 1:1 ratio by thicker plastic bags is unsupported by data.”
McLaughlin noted a study of a plastic bag ban in Austin, Texas, that started in 2012, which shows the intent of the law was undermined by retailers who gave out free, thicker plastic bags in place of the standard, thin-film bags that were banned.
McLaughlin embraces the state’s mandatory fee on paper bags but didn't demand it in the municipal bans because there was concern that the city or town would put the fee on all bags, thus allowing stores to continue offering cheaper single-use plastic bags.
McLaughlin and Berard do agree that cities and towns should have the right to regulate bag use if they think it is being exploited.
“All we are asking is for the state law to become the floor,” McLaughlin said, “so all the state needs to do is remove the preemption.”
Rhode Island municipalities with bag bans are: Barrington, Newport, Middletown, Portsmouth, Jamestown, Warren, Bristol, South Kingstown, North Kingstown, Westerly, Cranston, New Shoreham, Providence, and East Providence.