2017-09-14 / Front Page

Plastic bags set to come before town

Public hearing Monday on proposed ordinance

Leaders in coastal communities along Narragansett Bay have been considering whether to ban businesses from using plastic shopping bags.

So far, Barrington, Middletown and Newport have endorsed versions of the measure, while statewide legislation has been introduced in Providence.

The debate arrives in Jamestown next week.

A public hearing before the the town councilors is scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday. They will consider a proposed ordinance that says the “production, use and disposal of plastic checkout bags, which are commonly not recycled, has been shown to have significant detrimental impacts on the environment,” including clogging storm drains and harming marine life. The state constitution gives municipalities the purview to regulate solid waste and pollution.

While activists have voiced their concerns loud and clear to the councilors, there is another side that is calling the ban a tragic failure.

A national campaign to stop these bans has been launched by the American Progressive Bag Alliance, a lobby founded in 2005 to represent more than 24,000 industry workers. The protesters collected nearly 1 million signatures, forcing the California legislature to halt its proposed bill in lieu of a referendum.

“It’s a fool’s errand,” said Phil Rozenski, policy chair for the alliance.

According to Rozenski, activists use scare tactics, falsehoods and small-town politics to further their agenda, which is why they typically target communities instead of state legislatures. He said municipal policymakers will appease a small audience instead of using data and testimony.

“If you pack a city hall with 20 supporters, they’ll pass it,” he said.

Rozenski said prohibiting plastic bags will have no significant impact on pollution. Although banning and taxing a product will lead to its reduction, less than 1 percent of litter is plastic bags, which makes the trade-off not worth small businesses passing their cost increases to the consumer, he said.

Rozenski cited an independent report by the Health Economics Consulting Group that was hired to audit litter in the streets of San Francisco, the first city in America to eliminate plastic bags. The study was done two years after the ordinance was passed in 2007. The percentage of litter from plastic film increased during that time. While there may have been fewer plastic bags on the ground, Rozenski said, the percentage was up because so was the amount of litter from other forms of trash.

“The impact on litter is negligible,” Rozenski said. “This is not about the environment, this is about politics.”

Newport environmentalist Dave McLaughlin disagrees. He is co-founder of Clean Ocean Access, a grassroots organization in Middletown that organizes cleanups — including 13,000 plastic bags since 2013 — on Aquidneck and Conanicut islands. He’s also been the driving force behind these bans along the Rhode Island coastline.

“As a community that is dependent on the ocean’s health for our enjoyment and economy, we should play the role of being completely responsible,” he said.

McLaughlin said the ordinance doesn’t pit plastic versus paper. Although he wasn’t privy to the San Francisco study, he said it shouldn’t translate to this effort because he is championing bags that people don’t throw away.

“The spirit of the ordinance is to promote reusable materials,” he said. “Something that people can own. It’s not so much about the bag, but about the platform of the bag.”

McLaughlin said data can be misleading when counting plastic bags as litter.

“They are flimsy, they fly away and they break down into smaller pieces,” he said. “That’s why you’ll see more nip bottles on the street. They have a higher density and just kind of lie there.”

Ideally, McLaughlin wants this ordinance to change behavior that will extend, for example, to reusable cups and stainless-steel straws.

“It’s a mindset we need to engage,” said Kate Petrie, a Beavertail resident who has worked alongside McLaughlin. “Just like seat belts, recycling and not smoking in public.”

In an extreme case, if the ordinance passed and shoppers changed from plastic to paper without switching to reusable bags, that’s still a win for the environment, they said. That’s because paper is recyclable, while plastic is “down-cycled,” which means it is broken down to its component elements and reused at a lower value.

“When paper bags become litter, they break down into the earth, become soil and grow into trees,” he said. “Plastic goes into the landfill and stays there forever.”

McLaughlin will be at the hearing Monday night to push for the ban. He is encouraging opponents to attend the meeting so they can have a healthy debate.

“We need to reduce the waste footprint,” he said. “That means we either get more stuff or use less stuff. The planet is the size it’s always been. We just can’t keep mining materials.”

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