2013-02-28 / News

Banning plastic bags statewide?

Legislation would prohibit using bags at point of sale
BY KEN SHANE

Maria Cimini is a second-term state representative who recently introduced a bill to ban the use of plastic bags at checkout counters. While such a ban is already in effect in Barrington, Cimini’s bill marks the first effort to curtail the use of the bags on a statewide level.

The new legislation prohibits the use of disposable plastic bags at the point of sale by Rhode Island retailers. The ban does not include the use of so-called barrier bags, such as those used to wrap fruits, vegetables and fish. Also exempt would be plastic bags used by dry cleaners.

According to Cimini, the idea for her legislation developed when she heard about communities across the nation attempting to curb pollution through bans on plastic bags. She said since the bags have a major impact on waterways, the Ocean State should take a lead role in enacting a statewide ban.

“We certainly treasure our waterways here in Rhode Island as a natural resource and for recreational activities,” said Cimini, whose Providence district includes the Mouth Pleasant, Elmhurst and Valley neighborhoods. “The plastic bags are both aesthetically unpleasing and a contaminant to our waterways.”

Cimini says her legislation is similar in some ways to the ban that went into effect in Barrington on Jan. 1. Both bans prevent stores from providing single-use plastic bags at the point of sale. The major difference in her proposed bill is that it would allow retailers to charge a 10-cent fee for paper bags.

“Retailers are concerned because it is more expensive for them to purchase,” she said. “In order for the plastic-bag ban not to cut into revenue, the bill allows a 10-cent charge for paper bags to defray costs.”

Cimini said the charge for paper bags also reinforces the fact that bags aren’t free. Most stores give out bags, but that fee is included in the cost, she says. In addition, Cimini believes there is an environmental impact involved with manufacturing paper and plastic bags.

“When people get things for free,” Cimini said, “they don’t think about the value of that product and its impact on our communities.”

Cimini’s bill has been referred to the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee. The 10-member committee, chaired by Rep. Art Handy who represents Cranston, will eventually hold a hearing to discuss the merits of the legislation. After the hearing, during which the public will have input, the bill will be held for further study. Cimini hopes discussion eventually leads to a positive committee vote so that the legislation can be sent to the House floor. However, she is fully aware that most legislation is not passed in the same session that it is introduced. Bills that do not pass by the end of a session expire.

“It’s difficult to predict,” she said. “On the one hand, this is the kind of legislation that could move in its first year. If not, I’ll reintroduce it next year. I see no reason why I wouldn’t do that.”

State Rep. Deb Ruggiero, who represents and lives in Jamestown, agrees that passage of the bill will be difficult in this session. She said that the legislature sees thousands of bills each session, and only about 100 make it to the floor. She also had some questions about the bill as written.

“We do need to balance between the retailers, customers, environment and economy,” she said. “As an environmentalist, I agree in principle. We need to change people’s habits. It’s really changing culture.”

Ruggiero said that all stores should be mandated to have plastic bag recycling bins so customers can return them. She added that the 10-cent charge for paper bags seems high, and expressed the hope that instead of all the proceeds going back to the retailers, some percentage could be used for environmental projects.

“I think the bill needs some work,” she said. “I don’t think it’s very well written. There’s so much more we can do with this.”

Channing Jones of Environment Rhode Island helped Cimini craft the legislation. He said that the bill seeks to address the fact that too many bags end up in places like Narragansett Bay, where wildlife is threatened. He cited that plastic bags are routinely one of the top items found during coastal cleanups statewide.

“The easiest way to eliminate this source of plastic pollution is to ban plastic bags as proposed in the bill,” Jones said.

According to Jones, Environment Rhode Island, a citizen-based environmental advocacy group, began to work on the issue a year ago when they began to hear about similar bans being enacted. The organization began an outreach on the issue to the public and lawmakers. Cimini heard about its efforts and suggested that they work together.

“We started working together,” she said. “We looked at municipal ordinances across the United States and how we might adapt them to a state bill. We looked at all the different aspects of municipal ordinances that we could learn from and put together in a bill that works best for Rhode Island.”

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