2016-05-26 / Front Page

Council Supports Bag Ban

By Olga Enger

Newport City Councilors have given a preliminary nod to phase out disposable plastic bags.

“The impact of plastics first came to my attention when I saw a statue made of trash at the Volvo Ocean Race,” Councilor John Florez told Newport This Week. He sponsored the bill along with Councilors Lynn Ceglie and Naomi Neville. Florez was referring to trash-to-treasure statues constructed by Bert Emerson of Newport and his students at Salve Regina University, which were displayed at the Volvo event and are currently at Rose Island Lighthouse.

A resolution directing the city staff to introduce an ordinance to phase out the use of disposable plastic bags by Jan. 1, 2017 passed on a 6-1 vote, with Councilor Marco Camacho opposed. The measure further directed the administration to work with the Planning Board and the Energy and Environment Commission in formulating the law, and to seek public input.

Camacho cited the insufficiency of data presented to the council that paper bags are less detrimental to the environment than plastic bags. His motion to further study the issue before drafting an ordinance failed 5-2, with Councilor Kathryn Leonard joining in support of his effort.

“The idea is to draft the ordinance. We would then address those topics and provide a longterm vision. It promotes environmental stewardship,” said David McLaughlin, executive director of the Newport-based nonprofit Clean Ocean Access (COA) at the council meeting on Wednesday, May 25. “The idea is to move towards reusable products. This is the Ocean State; we should be taking care of our oceans.”

McLaughlin said that approximately 70 percent of debris collected at COA beach cleanups is single-use plastics.

The first pitch to ban plastic bags in Rhode Island was made to the Middletown Town Council in 2011 by resident Lisa Wagenbach, representing Surfriders Foundation. At that time, Middletown councilors voiced support for the concept, but said the issue should be addressed at a state level. Legislation to enact a statewide ban failed to gain momentum in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

Wagenbach, who was one of five others speaking in favor of the ban at Newport’s May 25 meeting, said she has traveled around the world and witnessed how plastic bag bans shift the culture of the communities in a positive way.

In 2013, Barrington prohibited retailers from using single-use plastic bags in a temporary two-year pilot program. Consumers were asked to instead use paper or reusable bags to carry out their products.

“The plastic bag industry will claim businesses will lose customers, because paper is more expensive,” said McLaughlin. “But in Barrington, they added a sunset clause to the temporary ban, and two years later realized there were no negative impacts to businesses.”

Barrington then permanently banned plastic bags in retail stores in 2015. However, to get around the new regulations, which include an exemption for thicker, reusable bags made out of plastic, Shaw’s and CVS manufactured heavier plastic checkout bags labeled as “reusable” that are offered in their Barrington stores.

“That’s unfortunate. That isn’t in the spirit of the ordinance,” said McLaughlin.

Florez said he reached out to the chambers of commerce in communities that have instituted similar bans, and they report only positive feedback about the shift.

The Newport County Chamber of Commerce has not released an opinion.

“The chamber is not planning on taking a stance on the plastic bag resolution,” Newport County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Erin Donovan-Boyle told Newport This Week. “We typically try not to get involved in local issues unless there is a very clear and evident impact to the local economy.”

One of COA’s main objectives for 2016 is to push for an island-wide plastic bag ban, said McLaughlin.

“We call it community-based advocacy,” he said. “We aren’t lobbying the councilors, or spending money on campaigns.”

He compared the plastics campaign with the smoking ban COA pushed last year. “When I first approached Portsmouth to propose a ban on smoking in public spaces, there wasn’t much interest. But after a few years it passed quickly, without any issues.”

The original Newport resolution did not explicitly state that the ordinance drafting process would include input from the community.

“I cannot support it the way it’s written. I have to make sure it has a public process,” said Leonard. She added that she does not use plastic bags and understands the negative impact they have on the shoreline, but wants to give businesses an opportunity to weigh in.

Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano agreed.

“We don’t only represent residents, we represent businesses,” said the mayor.

Florez agreed to an amendment that added a clause to include public input. “If that is what it will take to make everyone feel nice,” he said.

Camacho questioned the point of soliciting public input if it was already decided that an ordinance to phase out plastic bags will be presented in January.

“I want data, but I guess everyone has data that I don’t have,” said the First Ward councilor.

Once an ordinance is drafted, it will require two council votes to be enacted into law.

McLaughlin, along with other COA members, celebrated the vote by handing out reusable bags as people left the meeting.

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