With Senate hearing, plastic bag ban takes next step in legislative process

Media Contacts
Channing Jones

Overwhelming public support for proposed ban

Environment Rhode Island

Providence–– On Wednesday, the Rhode Island Senate’s Environment & Agriculture Committee held an initial hearing for S2314, the 2014 Senate bill to ban plastic shopping bags statewide in Rhode Island. In addition to environmental groups–including Environment Rhode Island, Clean Ocean Access, Clean Water Action, the Audubon Society, and the Sierra Club–municipal leaders and concerned citizens also attended the hearing to testify in support of the measure. Supportive testimony outnumbered opposition 7 to 1.

“Plastic bags pollute Narragansett Bay and Rhode Island’s environment,” said Channing Jones, Campaign Director with Environment Rhode Island. “Luckily, Rhode Island lawmakers have an opportunity this spring to ban plastic shopping bags statewide. With reusable bags readily available, nothing we use for five minutes should pollute the Bay, threaten wildlife, and litter Rhode Island for future generations.”

“Plastic bags are a problem for Johnston and Rhode Island, ” said Sen. Frank Lombardo (Johnston), lead sponsor of S2314. “As a thin film, plastic bags are a particular trash nuisance. Whether they’re carelessly discarded or get blown out of garbage trucks, dumpsters, or the landfill, plastic bags easily end up caught in tress, lining roadsides, littering parks, clogging storm drains, and making their way over time downstream to Narragansett Bay and Rhode Island’s coast.”

Rhode Island uses hundreds of millions of plastic bags every year, and they are a leading debris type found in Rhode Island coastal cleanups. In waterways like Narragansett Bay, these bags pose a direct threat to wildlife that can ingest or become entangled in them. Longer term, while plastic bags never biodegrade, they do break apart into increasingly small fragments, accumulating in the marine environment and picking up toxic substances in the water.

“I grow oysters in the Sakonnet River, and on every outgoing tide, untold numbers of bags are swept down the river into and past my farm,” said Chris Clarendon, owner of Seapowet Oysters in Tiverton. Clarendon was unable to attend the hearing but offered his support. “Plastic bags or fragments floating loose in the water are often ingested by marine fauna. Although they never biodegrade, plastic bags break apart slowly over time into smaller bits that can be ingested by animals lower in the food chain, such as my oysters. These microplastics are known to collect pollutants like PCBs in the water, potentially exposing my oysters and my customers to toxins.”

The plastic bag ban is supported by the Environment Council of Rhode Island, the state’s coalition of environmental groups. The legislation would prohibit the distribution of disposable plastic shopping bags at the point of sale by Rhode Island retailers, effective January 2015 for large retailers and January 2016 for small businesses. The Senate bill’s House counterpart (H7178), sponsored by Rep. Maria Cimini of Providence, saw a similarly supportive hearing on March 20th in the House Environment & Natural Resources Committee. Over one hundred communities around the United States, including Barrington, R.I., as well as major cities like Los Angeles and Seattle, have passed similar bans on a municipal level.

“Barrington’s plastic bag ban has been non-controversial and effective,” said Barrington Town Council member Kate Weymouth. “Our town council passed the ban due to broad public support, and residents and businesses have adjusted easily. But while we have eliminated this source of plastic pollution from our town, the true measure of our ban’s success will be if the state of Rhode Island follows suit.”

If H7178/S2314 passes, Rhode Island’s would be the first state-level bag ban policy. Massachusetts and California are among other states considering statewide proposals.

Earlier this year, Environment Rhode Island delivered more than 10,000 signatures to the General Assembly from residents around Rhode Island in support of a ban on plastic bags. At Wednesday’s hearing, the group also presented a list of over 170 Rhode Island businesses that have added their names to Environment Rhode Island’s list of bag ban supporters.

“In Rhode Island, we know that nothing we use for five minutes should pollute the Bay for five hundred years,” said Jones. “Banning plastic bags is a commonsense policy that will eliminate a significant source of trash threatening Rhode Island’s environment, including waterways like Narragansett Bay. I urge Rhode Island lawmakers to stand with the Bay and ban plastic bags this spring.”