2012-12-27 / Front Page

Conservationists consider town ban on plastic bags

Local participation would be voluntary

Island store managers are considering a voluntary bag ban, which would mean plastic bags would disappear from checkout counters, according to Conservation Commissioner Michael Brown.

If the plastic bags go, Jamestown will follow Barrington, which in January becomes the first Rhode Island municipality to ban plastic bags.

According to Peter DeAngelis, the Barrington town manager, the local conservation board pushed for the ordinance, which the town council passed 4-1 in October.

Barrington Councilor William DeWitt cast the only vote against the ban.

“I just thought we were going after the wrong issue,” DeWitt said in a telephone interview. “Plastic bottles are probably a bigger scourge.”

DeWitt said many people do reuse the plastic bags, either as liners for trash or to pick up after their dogs. If the bags are banned, then people will have to go out and buy a different type of plastic bag to throw out the trash.

“It’s a huge inconvenience without solving the problem,” he said. DeWitt also thinks new biodegradable and photodegradable plastic bags that have been introduced in some markets would be a better solution than a ban.

“I think we were very quick to ban the plastic bag because it made a great story,” he said.

But plastic-bag bans in other East Bay communities are likely over the coming months, according to Kate Weymouth, Barrington town councilor. Weymouth, who voted for the ban, said Environment Rhode Island, which is advocating for a statewide ban, is working with other towns on a measure similar to the Barrington ordinance. Bristol and Warren, for example, are studying the options, and interest has spread to Aquidneck Island, she said.

Meanwhile, the Jamestown Conservation Commission is also talking to Environment Rhode Island’s Channing Jones about plastic bags.

Brown said storeowners in Jamestown have been asked about replacing plastic bags with paper. Environment Rhode Island has surveyed store managers and owners informally, said Brown, who has acted as the conservation panel’s point man on the issue.

Nobody seems to be against getting rid of the plastic bags, he said.

Weymouth said in Westport, Conn., where the local government banned plastic bags several years ago, all the businesses support the move, even ones that initially opposed the bag ban.

None of the businesses want to go back to giving out plastic bags, she said.

Weymouth said she did a lot of research on the issue before she supported the bag ban.

“Initially I wasn’t even all that engaged with it,” she said, but became concerned when she saw the money the oil and gas industry has invested to defend plastic bags. “They really pump a lot of money into it,” she said.

Weymouth went on to explain that the oil and gas money has also paid for studies that unearthed “so-called facts” to show plastic is better for the environment than paper.

Weymouth said she attended workshops on the environmental issues and finally was convinced the plastic bags should be banned after hearing the debate and watching “Bag It,” a documentary about the environmental impact of plastics on wildlife and human health. She said that someone would have to be “pretty hard hearted” to see the film and not be convinced plastic bags are hazardous.

But ultimately, Weymouth said, she decided to vote for the ban because the manager of the Shaw’s said the store would voluntarily stop using plastic bags, whether or not the Barrington Town Council passed the ordinance. The store manager said the Shaw’s considers itself a community business and the customers wanted the bag ban.

“They opened the door for us,” she said. “If we didn’t pass it, we would have left them literally holding the bag.”

The Barrington ban impacts only the bags used to carry purchases out of the store, DeAngelis said. The clear so-called “barrier” bags – used for wrapping fish and produce – are not being banned. The ban will sunset in two years, he said, and at that time, the council could decide to revisit the issue.

Meanwhile, Brown has reached out to the Jamestown Chamber of Commerce in the hope of enlisting the entire business community’s support and making a plastic-bag moratorium a joint effort by the chamber and the conservation board.

Brown said he has met with Paul Sprague of the Chamber of Commerce. Sprague does not want to see an ordinance, Brown said, but rather feels the decision to drop plastic bags should be voluntary.

“Paul feels it should be voluntary,” Brown said. “Sign on if you want to sign on. But it’s interesting everyone seems to want to sign on. Nobody’s saying ‘no.’”

Carol Trocki, chairwoman of the Conservation Commission, said a plastic bag ban “will greatly benefit the community.” If the voluntary effort fails, she said, “There may be a time when an ordinance is appropriate.”

Brown says the next step is to send around a memo clearly calling for specific actions from the stores. He has drafted a two-paragraph memo that he read to the panel at its Dec. 12 meeting. The memo notes that the bags “create a significant litter problem” and also pose a hazard to marine life and birds. Similar bans have been enacted by other U.S. city governments, the memo notes. The Conservation Commission and the Chamber of Commerce are concerned about pollution in Narragansett Bay, and in supporting this moratorium, local businesses would be taking an “environmental leadership” role, he said.

Brown said the stores would be asked to not make available any single-use plastic bags expect with produce. He would also like stores to consider encouraging the use of recyclable bags.

The Conservation Commission approved the decision to ask the chamber for support and to make the moratorium a joint effort between the two bodies. Brown also will share the memo with the chamber.

Brown said plastic bags pose one of the top threats to marine life globally due to the volume of bags that are blown into the oceans.

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