2017-09-21 / Front Page

Plastic bag ban OK’d by town

Law goes into effect seven months from now

Applause echoed Monday night through Town Hall after Jamestown became the fourth Rhode Island community along Narragansett Bay to ban businesses from offering plastic checkout bags.

“This was a no-brainer,” said Kristine Trocki, council president. “This will be good for all of humanity. It won’t just impact our little town.”

Trocki’s vote to adopt the ordinance was echoed by her fellow Democrats, Mike White, Mary Meagher and Gene Mihaly. Republican Councilman Blake Dickinson cast the lone dissenting vote.

The ordinance, which takes effect on Earth Day 2018 in April, mirrors legislation in Barrington, Newport and Middletown. The four Democrats agreed the “production, use and disposal of plastic checkout bags, which are commonly not recycled, have significant detrimental impacts on the environment.” Prohibiting this practice “is necessary to protect the environment and the public health, safety and welfare” of Jamestown residents, they agreed.

Among the concerns of the vocal contingency of supporters in the audience, plastic bags clog storm drains, harm marine life and pollute the coastline. The biggest reason, however, is they are not biodegradable.

“We use plastic bags for an average of 12 minutes,” Susan Maffei Plowden, of Calvert Place, said, “but they last up to 1,000 years.”

“All the plastic that we ever created is still with us today,” Newport resident Dave McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin is executive director of Clean Ocean Access, a grassroots environmental organization in Middletown that organizes coastal cleanups in Newport County. He has spearheaded the statewide effort to ban plastic bags. While the ordinance allows paper bags and thicker plastic, the spirit isn’t to switch from standard plastic bags to those products, McLaughlin said. He wants this law to influence a change of behavior in which residents bring their own reusable bags when they shop.

While businesses will be prohibited from offering plastic bags when this law goes into effect, the ordinance does have exemptions. The bags are not banned from farm stands, farmers markets, yard sales and charity drives. Moreover, plastic is allowed at businesses for certain items, including bags for vegetables, dry-cleaning, newspapers, prescription drugs, flowers and muffins.

Town Administrator Andy Nota also has the authority to grant hardship variances without council approval. The fine for using banned bags is $150 per day following a written warning.

While most audience members stood behind the ban, there were some detractors. Marilyn Munger, of Conanicut Marine Services, said she has three years of plastic bags in her inventory valued at $5,000. She also questioned the town’s decision to exempt nonprofit organizations while creating a hardship for businesses that contribute to the tax base.

“These are the core businesses that are keeping our community alive,” she said. “If we are really going after plastic bags, why aren’t we going after everybody?”

Owner Bill Munger said his business doesn’t object to the measure. However, he would like to have the ordinance adopted in phases. “We are not opposed to this,” he said. “But we have considerable inventory.”

In reply to Conanicut Marine’s objection to exempting nonprofits while targeting businesses, McLaughlin said his team was trying to get the biggest impact with the lowest hardship. The point of sale, he said, is the crux of the problem. “We want to make sure we get the biggest bang for our buck,” he said.

Dickinson, however, said the exemptions were a strategy to push through the ordinance with less backlash.

“Why not ban all plastic?” he said. “Because we’d have an army of our neighbors with pitchforks here tonight.”

Dickinson advocated for education versus enforcement, but Baldwin Court resident Kathleen Brown disputed that approach. Her late husband, Mike Brown, was a conservation commissioner who raised the prospect of a ban nearly four years ago. During a presentation to the chamber of commerce, he pleaded for a voluntary ban that would make Jamestown a leader in environmental stewardship across the state, she said.

“Wouldn’t that be setting the bar high?” she said. “Well, those businesses talked to him and thought about it. That was four years ago. I wish we could just do it voluntarily. Unfortunately, some things have to be legislated. I’m sorry, but we have to be told what to do sometimes. That’s just the way it is.”

The council was told there is more on the horizon. Meg Myles, executive director of the Conanicut Island Sailing Foundation, said she plans to push for an ordinance banning plastic straws.

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