2017-02-23 / Front Page

Council Preliminarily Approves Plastic Bag Ban

By Olga Enger

After eight months of planning, Newport City Council unanimously gave a preliminary nod to banning single-use plastic bags.

The movement began last summer when Dave McLaughlin, executive director of Clean Ocean Access (COA), petitioned Newport, Middletown and Portsmouth to consider an islandwide ban.

“This is a question of sustainability,” said McLaughlin, who reported that 70 percent of the trash collected at COA’s beach cleanups are plastic bags.

In Middletown, a draft of a similar ordinance appeared on the consent agenda at the Feb. 21 Town Council meeting. Before councilors vote, the ordinance requires an advisory opinion from the Middletown Planning Board. Similarly, Portsmouth expressed an interest in a plastic bag ban, but town officials are waiting on results from Newport and Middletown, said McLaughlin.

In June, Newport City Council directed the administration to work with the Planning Board and the Energy and Environment Commission in formulating the law, and to seek public input.

After months of meetings, councilors preliminary approved the long-awaited ordinance, at their Feb. 22 meeting. It prohibits businesses from making single-use plastic carryout bags available to customers. The first reading of the ordinance passed 7-0.

“I think it should be a trial,” Leonard told Newport This Week. “Many communities have repealed the ordinance because getting rid of paper is more costly than dealing with plastic bags.” She plans to propose an amendment at the second reading to evaluate the program in a year.

David Fernandez, owner of Upper Deck Clothing on Bowen’s Wharf, has argued smaller-scale retailers such has himself will bear the economic burden.

“Plastic bags are considerably less expensive for me,” said Fernandez at the last Planning Board’s Bring Your Bag subcommittee held Feb. 13.

Fernandez said that a year’s order of plastic bags – 6,000 each of large and small that would last for approximately 12-18 months – costs $2,600. The comparable or- der – size and number – for paper bags, he said, costs $6,329.60, with storage expenses driving the total to $7,200.

McLaughlin argued the hidden cost of non-action is the most expensive option.

“Taking care of the environment comes with the cost. The cost that we are trying to avoid is the unintended consequences,” McLaughlin said.

A sixth-grader from Jamestown disagreed.

“Really, plastic bag bans won’t help the environment or the economy, as plastic bags are the best current type of bag for store use,” wrote Evangeline Junge in a letter addressed to Middletown Town Council.

The Rhode Island Resource Recovery (RIRR) program reported to Newport officials that they maintain a neutral position on a bag ban. RIRR proposed alternatives such as fees on plastic bags, which could be put toward education about their reuse.

However, in a visit to the Johnston landfill last August, McLaughlin saw the consequences of plastic bags firsthand. Employees told him plastic bags wreak havoc on the machinery within the recycling center and there is a fence solely designed to capture plastic bags.

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.

In 2013, Barrington was the first community in the state to prohibit 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 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.”

Single-use plastic bags do not include plastic barrier bags, double-opening plastic bags, or plastic bags measuring larger than 28 by 36 inches, according to the new ordinance.

If the bag ban passes on second reading, businesses that violate the regulations will be subject to a fine of up to $1,000. Although the ordinance will be effective upon passage, enforcement will not begin until Nov. 1, 2017.

The second reading will be held at the next council meeting, scheduled for March 8 at Newport City Hall. An ordinance requires two readings to become law.

Return to top