2017-04-27 / Around Town

Middletown to Vote for Plastic Bag Ban

By Olga Enger

Middletown may soon join Newport in a ban of single-use plastic bags.

If approved, the ordinance will prohibit businesses from providing single-use plastic bags to customers at the point of sale. The Town Council is expected to cast a final vote on Monday, May 1, at 7 p.m. at Middletown Town Hall.

Newport adopted a similar ordinance in March. The ban will not be enforced until Nov. 1 to give businesses time to adjust to the regulation. Middletown's ordinance did not specify an implementation date.

Clean Ocean Access (COA) Executive Director David McLaughlin, who has been petitioning Aquidneck Island communities to prohibit single-use plastics for several years, said he was pleased with the ordinance. He refers to the new law as a "Bring Your Bag" campaign, which he hopes will shift the mindset of consumers on the island to use reusable bags as part of their daily shopping experience.

McLaughlin asked the town to remove an exemption for restaurants, thus aligning with Newport's new plastic bag law. "I think it is fair and reasonable that restaurants also move towards durable and reusable bags," he said at the first reading on April 17.

Other exemptions include bags for laundry and dry cleaning, garbage and yard waste, newspapers, prescription drugs and plastic barriers for bulk items or to wrap flowers.

COA volunteers have collected approximately 12,000 plastic bags from local beaches since 2013, said McLaughlin. Single-use plastic bags are used for an average of 12 minutes and have a life expectancy of 1,000 years, according to data collected by the city. Studies found that 35 percent of fish have plastics in or around their bodies, introducing harmful chemicals into the food chain.

Naval Station Newport, which is not subject to the local ordinances, may consider a similar policy.

"In the event every community on the island were to ban plastic bags, then both our commissary and Navy exchange would bring this to the attention of their respective headquarters and seek a way to comply as well, in keeping with our community relations efforts," said Navy Spokeswoman Lisa Rama.

Shaw's Supermarket is aware of the proposed ordinance and plans to comply, as well.

"To reduce the use of plastic and paper bags, we continually encourage our customers to bring in reusable bags for their shopping orders,” Shaw's spokeswoman Teresa Edington said. “We also have available at our stores other shopping bag alternatives that further promote the use of reusable bags.”

Middletown businesses that provide plastic barrier bags or double opening bags must offer onsite recycling, as defined by the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation RESTORE program. Newport's ordinance has the same requirement for businesses.

Middletown was the first community in the state to consider a ban on single-use plastics and if approved, it will be the third municipality to adopt an ordinance. In 2011, Middletown councilors voiced support for the concept, but they decided to let a proposed statewide ban at Smith Hill play out. Legislation to enact a plastic ban failed to gain momentum from 2013 to 2015. In 2013, Barringtonbecame the first Rhode Island community to prohibit retailers from using single-use plastic bags; Newport followed suit last month.

A group of residents, including children holding visuals, spoke in favor of the proposal at the April 17 meeting. “Plastic bags are an absolute nightmare,” said resident Joe Cooper.

No councilors or members from the public spoke against the proposal. The Planning Board earlier this month unanimously recommended that the council approve the new law.

The ordinance provides Town Administrator Shawn Brown with the authority to grant a hardship variance for unique circumstances. Enforcement will be carried out by the Middletown Police Department or any other town department designated by the town administrator. First-time violators will be issued a warning letter. After 14 days of receiving a warning, businesses may be fined $150 for a second offense. Violators will be fined $300 for a subsequent offense. In Newport, violators may be fined up to $1,000.

The Portsmouth Town Council has expressed interest in a plastic bag ban, but has not yet publicly presented an ordinance. "They are waiting to see what Middletown approves," said McLaughlin.

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