With more than 400 miles of coastline and more than 100 fresh and salt water beaches in Rhode Island, state Rep. Maria Cimini says the time has come to have an open and honest conversation about a statewide ban on plastic bags.
Cimini (D-Providence) says that conversation starts in earnest Thursday when the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee holds a public hearing on legislation she introduced in February to ban plastic bags at store checkouts in Rhode Island.
A companion bill to ban plastic checkout bags statewide was introduced in the Rhode Island Senate by Sen. Donna Nesselbush (D-Pawtucket).
Hundreds of communities across the country have instituted some type of ban.
Recently in Massachusetts, Brookline and Manchester-by-the-Sea approved bans. No state has enacted a statewide ban. However, Hawaii does have a de-facto statewide ban, with all four counties in the state now banning non-biodegradable plastic bags at checkout as well as paper bags that are not at least 40 percent recycled.
“Thursday’s hearing will be an opportunity for me, members of the community and members of the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee to share our thoughts on this issue,” said Cimini, who will be joined by environmental groups, local leaders, and activists.
The Cimini-Nesselbush bill would prohibit the distribution of disposable plastic shopping bags at the point of sale by Rhode Island retailers, effective January 2014 for large retailers, and January 2015 for small businesses. Dozens of communities around the United States, including Barrington, in October, as well as major cities like Los Angeles and Seattle, have passed similar bans on a municipal level.
Cimini says plastic bags are a leading debris type found in Rhode Island coastal cleanups. In waterways like Narragansett Bay, they pose a direct threat to wildlife that can ingest or become entangled in them. Longer term, while plastic bags never biodegrade, they do break apart into increasingly small fragments, accumulating in the marine environment and picking up toxic substances in the water.
“Rhode Island uses hundreds of millions of plastic bags every year, and too many of them are littering our neighborhoods, parks, and roadsides - and because they are so light, they easily make their way into Narragansett Bay and other bodies of water,” she said.
According to the Cimini-Nesselbush bill, stores could offer recyclable paper bags, but would be required to charge 10 cents for them as a means to encourage customers to bring reusable shopping bags and to prevent more expensive paper bags from becoming a burden on retailers. Stores could also sell reusable bags made of cloth, paper or thick, durable plastic.
But Steven Arthurs, president of the Rhode Island Food Dealers Association (RIFDA), says not so fast.
“We’re all about recycling and have been very proactive in that regard, but our position is let the consumer decide,” said Arthurs. “In addition to a recycling program our industry also provides bag options for consumers in all stores including plastic, paper and reusable bags.”
The RIFDA, which represents over 300 food organizations throughout the state including grocery and specialty retailers, wholesalers, distributors, manufacturers, suppliers and brokers, opposes the Cimini-Nesselbush bill and will give testimony at Thursday’s hearing.
Arthurs says the industry has been a proactive participant in recognizing the potential harm that plastic bags can cause to the environment, adding Rhode Island was one of the first states five years ago to develop a food retailer driven recycling with Rhode Island Resource Recovery.
The program is free for consumers and the stores that host collection barrels for the bags. As part of the program, consumers deposit plastic grocery and shopping bags and other materials such as newspaper sleeves, dry cleaner and produce bags in the barrels. The materials are then sent to the RIRRC’s materials recovery facility in Johnston, where they are baled and sold to a plastic film recycler.
“There’s multiple arguments against it (plastic bag ban), including the fact that 6 out of 10 consumers reuse plastic bags” Arthurs said, adding that 65 percent of consumers when educated reuse plastic grocery bags for everything from lunch bags to pet pick-up to trash can liners.
“Our industry has been proactive in providing consumer information on plastic bags in an effort to educate. This includes tips for alternate usage of bags,” he said.
Environment Rhode Island's Channing Jones says public support for a bag ban from Rhode Island residents and businesses is clear.
On April 3, at the Rhode Island State House, Environment Rhode Island presented over 7,300 petition signatures and letters signed by 134 Rhode Island businesses supporting a plastic bag ban. The public comments were delivered just before the Senate Environment & Agriculture Committee heard testimony around the Senate bill.
"In the Ocean State, there is broad public support for banning plastic bags as a common sense protection for Narragansett Bay," says Jones, program associate with Environment Rhode Island. "People and businesses in Rhode Island know that nothing we use for five minutes should pollute Narragansett Bay for future generations.”
Environmentalists like Jones say the bags are a danger to the state's coastlines, and kill sea turtles, whales, seals and other marine wildlife that swallow plastic or get strangled by the bags. Recycling the bags does not solve the problem, they argue. In most cases, the resin in plastic bags can only be used once, and recycling them is costly.
"A plastic bag ban is a common sense policy that will eliminate a significant source of trash threatening the Bay and other Rhode Island waterways,” Jones said.
Massachusetts is also looking to become the first state to ban plastic-bag use at large retail stores. Lawmakers on the Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture Committee quickly moved the legislation (H696 and S359) forward Monday, immediately following a hearing on the issue. The bills ban single-use plastic bags at retail stores larger than 4,000 square feet. The ban would exempt smaller retail stores and not include plastic produce and bakery bags used inside grocery stores.