Proposed bill would ban use of plastic bags

Bill stresses economic, environmental benefits of eliminating plastic shopping bags

Contributing Writer
Thursday, February 5, 2015

Rhode Island may soon be among the first states in the country to ban the use of disposable plastic checkout bags at retail establishments. If passed, the bill would require large-scale retailers with total annual retail sales of at least $5 million to stop using plastic checkout bags by Jan. 1, 2016. Smaller retailers would have an additional year to comply with the new law.

The ban’s primary aim is to cut down on the amount of plastic that pollutes Narragansett Bay, according to a Jan. 26 General Assembly press release.

“Plastic trash is nearly permanent and causes known and unknown harm to marine ecosystems in particular,” said Mara Freilich ’15, former director of the student environmental group emPOWER, adding that she supports the bill.

Plastic bags, which can take hundreds of years to decompose, are frequently mistaken for food by marine wildlife and can be fatal if ingested, according to the Northern Territory Environment Protection Authority. The degradation of plastics can also release harmful chemicals into the environment, according to the NTEPA.

Preserving the state’s marine ecosystems may not only maintain natural beauty but could also have economic benefits. “Our greatest asset as a state is our location, and we depend upon our shoreline and waters to provide us with tourist and industrial dollars,” said Rep. Gregg Amore, D-East Providence, who introduced the legislation. “Any initiative that preserves and protects this asset should be looked upon as a pro-business economic initiative.”

While  tourist dollars bring revenue to the state, it remains unclear how the ban would affect retailers and plastic bag producers in Rhode Island. Amore said he hopes to work with stakeholders to ease the burden and inconvenience of implementing a ban on an everyday item.

Employees and managers of local businesses expressed little concern over the proposed ban.

“Some people will complain; some people will love it; it will be polarizing,” said Elizabeth Root, manager of Second Time Around, a used clothing store on Thayer Street. “But I can’t imagine it will affect business very much. People are going to shop no matter what.”

Many retailers may respond to the ban by selling reusable totes, Root added.

“I personally don’t think it will have much of an effect,” said Patrick Morello, a store manager at the CVS on Thayer Street. “The same thing happened at a store in (Washington, D.C.) and people were mad at first, but it wasn’t a big deal.”

This marks the third time that a statewide bag ban has been proposed. Past bills have failed to make it to a floor vote. 

The bill has traction in the House, with the support of Rep. John Edwards, D-Portsmouth and Tiverton, the majority whip, “so it will at least be on the leadership’s radar,” Amore said.

“Bans on plastic bags have proven to be non-controversial in towns across the U.S. and at the national level in other countries, so approving the ban should be an easy choice for the Rhode Island legislature,” Freilich said.

If the bill passes, Rhode Island towns will join more than 100 other municipalities across the country that have already enacted similar legislation. In 2012, Barrington passed a citywide ban on plastic bags.

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