Rhode Island’s Plastic Waste Reduction Act went into effect Jan. 1, banning R.I. retail establishments from providing single-use plastic bags to customers at the point of sale.
Passed by the state legislature in June 2022, the act follows similar measures in 18 R.I. communities that began with Barrington’s ban on single-use plastic bags in 2012. Narragansett became the most recent community to ban single-use plastic bags with legislation in March 2022.
“Simple in practice and intent,” the law has “the sole goal of protecting our state’s beautiful natural resources from the devastation of single-use plastic bags,” State Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee (D-Narragansett, South Kingstown) wrote in an email to The Herald. McEntee co-sponsored the legislation with State Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D-North Providence, Providence).
The bill is intended to reduce the “staggering amount of waste that needs to be eliminated in our state,” McEntee wrote, citing the “26,000 tons of plastic bags and plastic film” that are discarded each year in R.I.
Vendors statewide will now have to make the potentially non-trivial transition away from single-use plastic. “Restaurants, stores and other establishments who have come to rely upon the convenience of single-use plastic bags brought the most concerns to the process,” McEntee wrote.
After its passage, lawmakers delayed implementing the bill for a year and a half “to give our state’s residents and businesses time to plan and adjust to a complete phaseout of single-use plastic bags,” she added.
For Roshan Baral, who has owned and operated Metro Mart on Thayer Street for over a decade, the change might still prove to be “inconvenient.” Baral learned of the new regulation through the news, he said, and did not receive any other communications about the ban.
But Baral said he understood the factors motivating the legislation. “We’ll get used to it,” he said. “For the environment, it’s a good thing — so I’m not complaining.”
The bill reflects efforts by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management to mitigate plastic pollution throughout the state, RIDEM Director Terry Gray said in a Dec. 14 press release. Local waters like the Narragansett Bay are “central to the Ocean State’s environment, way of life and economy,” Gray added, making it vital to prevent “litter and plastic debris” from entering their currents.
Dave McLaughlin, a programming services officer at RIDEM, said the department worked with the 18 communities with similar bans already in place to ensure that the law left “no room for loopholes.” This collaboration resulted in a unique definition of “reusable bags”: handles for bags must be stitched in order to be considered exempt from the ban.
“In those 18 communities, they never found a case where the industry found a way to add stitching to a plastic bag,” McLaughlin said. “As a result, plastic bags are gone.”
While single-use plastic bags may be gone from stores, they are not gone from the state’s streets, McLaughlin warned. “They’re still blowing around in the environment and there’s still a residual source of the litter,” he said.
But for McLaughlin, the bill is a win. It’s not just a ban on single-use plastic bags, he said, but an optimistic step for further environmental policy action in the state. The Plastic Waste Reduction Act “shows that the General Assembly is aware that single-use plastics are causing an issue in the environment,” he said.
Maya Kelly is a Metro senior staff writer who covers health and environment. When she's not at The Herald, you can find her hanging from an aerial silk, bullet journaling, or stress-baking.