Metro, News

City Council proposes Providence-wide plastic bag ban

City Council suggests ban on most single-use plastic bags, fee on businesses for violations

By
Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 3, 2019

City leaders are on the verge of banning single-use plastic bags in Providence, following the lead of ten other Rhode Island municipalities that have done the same.

A proposed city ordinance would make it illegal in most cases for businesses to provide plastic carryout bags to customers in any sales transaction or for other use in the city.

The ordinance is a part of an effort to curb litter, protect the state’s marine environment and reduce emissions by encouraging the use of reusable bags.

While the ordinance would ban most types of single-use plastic bags, bags used for dry cleaning and wrapping frozen meat or fish would be exempted. If approved, the bag ban would begin six months after its passage.

Last year, the Providence City Council approved an ordinance that would have charged customers a minimum of 10 cents per single-use bag used in lieu of a resuable alternative. But Mayor Jorge Elorza vetoed the ordinance, citing community concerns that the bag fee would disproportionately affect low-income consumers. “While I support the intentions and goals of the policy, a critical step in the process was skipped: robust community engagement and public discourse,” Elorza wrote his veto letter to the Council last year.

The Providence City Council’s Finance Committee endorsed a revised version of the ordinance March 21 that omits the 10 cent fee but would include fines for businesses. Retailers found offering single-use plastic bags would be fined $50 for their first violation and $100 for all subsequent offenses.

Elorza supports the new version of the ordinance, according to Ben Smith, the Mayor’s deputy director of communications.

“The administration applauds the members of the City Council for working to ensure that this ordinance considers the impact it will have on all Providence residents,” Smith wrote in an email to The Herald.

Despite support from City Hall, some community members worry that the revised ordinance does not go far enough to address the city’s environmental concerns.

Deborah Schimberg ’80, P’05 MD’19, P’14, an advocate with Zero Waste Providence, said she fears that the decision to remove the 10 cent fee will discourage consumers from investing in reusable bags. “We are really trying to get people to use reusable bags. So, just making it so that (consumers) can switch to paper doesn’t accomplish that,” she said.

Schimberg also voiced concerns about the price of the paper bags that will mostly likely replace plastic bags in stores. Paper is more expensive than plastic, and Schimberg believes that the burden of higher cost will fall disproportionately on small businesses, a cost that could be passed on to the consumer.

If the Office of Sustainability determines that a particular business would face undue hardship under the ban, the ordinance allows year-long exemptions at the office’s discretion.

“The Retail Federation does not have a position” on the proposed bag ban, according to Mike Blazek, vice president of communications for the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce.

Barrington became the first municipality in Rhode Island to enact a plastic-bag ban in January 2013. Since then, nine other communities including Newport, Block Island and Bristol have all instituted bans.

With communities across the state embracing bag bans, many are hopeful that statewide legislation to this effect could be successful. Sen. Josh Miller of Cranston, Providence and Rep. Carol McEntee of South Kingstown, Narragansett have introduced legislation this year that would ban single-use plastic bags across the state.

Last week, New York State lawmakers became the second state to approve a statewide ban on most types of single-use plastic bags from any sales transactions, after California banned single-use bags in 2016. Hawaii does not have state-wide ban, but every county in the state has banned their use.

The proposed ordinance is expected to go before the full City Council later this month.

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