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Bill seeks to ban plastic bag dispersal statewide

Legislation faces skepticism from businesses that say ban would add costs for consumers

The Plastic Waste Reduction Act was reintroduced Thursday to the Rhode Island House of Representatives by Rep. Maria Cimini, D-Providence. The bill would ban the dispersal of many plastic bags in Rhode Island by January 2015 for large retailers and by January 2016 for small businesses.

During the last legislative session, neither a similar plastic bag ban in the House nor its Senate twin — sponsored by Sen. Donna Nesselbush ’84, D-Pawtucket, North Providence — made it to the floor for a vote. Advocates hope support for the year-old plastic bag bans in Barrington, R.I., as well as in Seekonk, Mass., will convince legislators to pass a statewide mandate, said Aanchal Saraf ’16, who interned for Environment Rhode Island and has worked to pass the bill.

The statewide ban is necessary to repair the “leaks in the system,” caused by people traveling to other towns where they can get plastic bags, Saraf said. As of now, Hawaii is the only state to ban all plastic bags, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Environment Rhode Island has been the primary organization campaigning for this legislation, with workers having knocked on “tens of thousands of doors across the state” since the summer of 2012, said spokesman Channing Jones. “In Rhode Island, we value Narragansett Bay and our marine environment very highly. We also care about the wildlife out there, and we want to leave it clean and healthy for future generations. This is a fairly simple step we can take to eliminate a very common source of plastic trash out there,” he added.

Environment Rhode Island also created fact sheets for state legislators to inform them of the “basic benefits” behind the pressed legislation, Saraf said. They are now tracking the bill online as it moves through the House, she said.

Many small retailers have already switched to paper bags, because the swap saves money, attracts free advertising or owners feel it is “the right thing to do,” Jones said. “Plastic bags are on their way out,” he said, adding that “in our experience going out and talking to individual business owners, there’s a lot of support out there.”

Providence is a “green conscious community,” Saraf said. While small businesses may see paper bags as beneficial, the transition might pose a problem for large businesses, she added.

Companies are upset, because plastic is cheaper, Saraf said, but even biodegradable plastics can be detrimental to the environment, she said. “They’re still releasing harmful chemicals that are polluting the water, and just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it does no harm.”

The bill has met opposition from organizations like the American Progressive Bag Alliance, which argues that alternatives such as increased recycling of plastic bags could offer a better solution to the environmental concerns. “American-made plastic products are the best environmental choice at check-out — for both retailers and consumers,” according to the organization’s website.

Styrofoam containers are a similar environmental nuisance, Jones said. “The next step would be taking out other common types of trash in the bay,” he said.

“We’re the Ocean State,” Saraf said. “You have to recognize the fact that by continuing to use plastic bags, (the marine environment) is being damaged,” she said.


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