2016-07-21 / Around Town

Middletown Joins Support for Plastic Bag Ban

By Olga Enger

Middletown joined Newport in considering the ban of single-use plastic bags from retail stores.

A motion to draft an ordinance quickly passed 6-0 at the July 18 Middletown Town Council meeting, with Councilor Antone Viveiros absent.

“I feel good,” said Clean Ocean Access Executive Director David McLaughlin after the meeting. “One of our 2016 goals is to get an island-wide ordinance to eliminate single-use plastic bags.”

In May, Newport passed a resolution directing city staff to draft an ordinance by Jan. 1, 2017, which would phase out single-use plastic bags.

Members of Newport’s Energy and Environment Commission indicated at a meeting on July 11 that a public workshop on the issue will likely be scheduled for September.

Middletown Administrator Shawn Brown said he has already been in conversations with Newport City Manager Joseph Nicholson in collaborating on an ordinance.

Approximately 70 percent of debris collected at COA beach cleanups consists of single-use plastic bags, said McLaughlin. “Since we started counting three years ago, we have collected 9,997 plastic bags from the local shore,” he said. The group has removed over 90,000 pounds of debris at their regular cleanups since 2006.

The first pitch to ban plastic bags in Rhode Island was made to the Middletown Town Council in 2011 by resident Lisa Wagenbach, representing the 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.

The difference from 2011 is greater awareness and a realization that change often begins at a local level, McLaughlin said.

“You don’t want to use an item once that is made to last for thousands of years,” he said.

In 2013, Barrington was the first community in Rhode Island to prohibit retailers from using single-use plastic bags. However, to get around the new regulations, which included an exemption for thicker, reusable bags made out of plastic, Shaw’s and CVS manufactured heavier plastic checkout bags labeled as “reusable” that were offered in their Barrington stores. The ordinance has since been amended to close the loophole.

McLaughlin said enforcement would be initially required, but it would soon become part of the Aquidneck Island culture.

“In order to enforce a law, there has to be an infraction system and a window of active enforcement. Then it becomes part of healthy living and making good decisions. It’s similar to jaywalking, which is more about education.”

He added that enforcement wouldn’t be difficult.

“This isn’t a case of consumers making individual decisions. It’s pretty obvious if everyone is walking out of Shaw’s with plastic bags,” said McLaughlin. He argued it shouldn’t be a plastic versus paper debate.

“It’s a theme of bring-your-own with a focus on durable reusable bags,” McLaughlin said.

In August, COA is heading north with the message.

“We look forward to working with Portsmouth, essentially getting them on board,” said McLaughlin. “We would like to see a uniform, consistent ordinance [across the island] so that everyone plays by the same rules.”

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

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