Providence–– On Thursday, the Rhode Island House of Representatives' Environment & Natural Resources Committee held an initial hearing for H7178, the 2014 House 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--small business owners, policy experts, municipal leaders, and concerned citizens also attended the hearing to testify in support of the measure. Of those who spoke at the hearing, twenty five supported the legislation and two opposed it, including a representative of a national plastic bag manufacturing association. Others signed up in support or opposition but did not testify, including Save the Bay in support.
"Plastic bags 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."
According to State Rep. Maria Cimini of Providence, the House bill's prime sponsor: "Rhode Island uses hundreds of millions of plastic bags every year, and too many of them are littering our neighborhoods, parks, and roadsides––and because they are so light, they easily make their way into Narragansett Bay and other bodies of water."
Plastic bags are a leading debris type found in Rhode Island coastal cleanups. In waterways like Narragansett Bay, they 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. "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 House bill's Senate counterpart (S2314), sponsored by Sen. Frank Lombardo of Johnston, has yet to receive a hearing. 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.
Also on Thursday, Rhode Island General Assembly members received envelopes containing photographs of plastic bag trash found in towns they represent. On Saturday, March 8th, approximately 75 volunteers and activists turned out for the Rhode Island Plastic Bag Hunt, a statewide scavenger hunt for plastic bag litter hosted by Environment Rhode Island. Participants set out in teams to complete a checklist––with items from "find a plastic bag on a beach or shoreline" to "find someone using a reusable bag".
With the Plastic Bag Hunt, organizers and participants sought to raise visibility for the ubiquity of plastic bag trash in towns around Rhode Island, with photographs taken in areas around the state.
"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," said Jones. "I'd like to thank all of the volunteers who participated in the recent scavenger hunt, and I urge Rhode Island lawmakers to heed their message and ban plastic bags this spring."