Before Bristol follows the town of Barrington and bans supermarkets and other ‘big box’ stores from supplying shoppers with single use plastic bags to carry their purchases, the Bristol town council wants time to weigh its options and find the reasons how the thin film plastic gets into the environment.
At the request of town councilman Timothy Sweeney, the topic was discussed at a special town council meeting on Wednesday night, Feb. 20.
Channing Jones, program associate for Environment Rhode Island, a citizen based environmental advocacy group presented his group’s position that legislation is necessary to eliminate the bags from getting into the marine environment, and potentially, into the food chain.
“Each person uses about 500 single use plastic bags every year,” Mr. Jones said. “In Rhode Island coastal clean-ups they’re one of the things found most every year. They’re a primary source of trash in the marine environment. That’s what this issue is all about.”
While no one disagreed that the so-called ‘single use’ plastic bags are unsightly and pose an environmental threat when they find their way into the woods and waterways, members of the town council, environmental groups and businesses couldn’t agree on how best to prevent those bags from getting there. So the council decided to give the matter more thought.
“This is actually a difficult topic. I agree this has an impact and should be addressed,” said councilman Edward Stuart, Jr.
Mr. Stuart said he is neither for nor against the ban proposal at this time, however he isn’t convinced that eliminating one material is the solution either.
“If (plastic) is banned, is paper and cotton the answer? How do you weigh paper and cotton on the impact on marine life?” he said.
Town council chairwoman Mary Parella agreed, recalling that the reason supermarkets switched to plastic bags was because of the impact paper bags had on the environment.
“They both seem to have environmental impacts,” she said.
In addition, Ms. Parella said that in Bristol, a ban wouldn’t bring significant change to the problem.
“You could probably count on two hands the stores that would be impacted,” she said.
Small businesses would be exempt from any ordinance, similar to what the town of Barrington enacted. In Bristol, stores such as Stop and Shop, Walgreen, CVS and Seabra would be banned from giving out plastic bags at checkout.
While organizations such as Environment RI, the Surf Rider Foundation and the Environmental Law Foundation chapter from Roger Williams University threw their support behind a law that bans plastic bags, community groups and Bristol residents were not as convinced, and looked for “a balanced approach” as a solution.
“I see very few plastic bags on the shoreline,” said Michael Byrnes of Explore Bristol, a committee working to promote tourism in town.
From his observations, Styrofoam cups and cans are more of a litter problem. And, although Mr. Jones and Ethan Tucker, chairman of the Bristol Economic Development Commission and proponent of the ban argue that particles from the bags are consumed by fish and shellfish that are consumed by people, Mr. Byrnes saw that as a minor concern.
“I’m more concerned with sewer overflow for shellfish,” Mr. Byrnes said. “I’d like to see real good evidence how much plastic gets into the environment.”
If plastic bags are the concern, he would look for other options.
“I just don’t think it’s right to engage legislation. I think there are better ways to do it,” he said, noting that there is already an ordinance against littering.
Others suggested that plastic bags came in third or fourth in beach clean ups, behind cigarette butts and bottle caps. Bristol resident Steven Katz suggested a ‘Beautify Bristol’ campaign.
“A balanced approach. I think that’s what we need here,” he said.
“The source of the problem is litter,” said Mr. Stuart.
He, too, offered suggestions of public education to motivate residents to recycle and be more responsible regarding disposal of bags and other refuse.
At the meeting was Crystal Noiseux, the recycling program manager for Rhode Island Resource Recovery. She, too, agreed that when plastic bags get into the environment they pose a problem, but, she said, keeping them out of the environment is the solution.
“The biggest issue is with the (empty) bags going into the trash,” she said.
By law, the ‘big box’ stores that provide the bags also have recycle boxes where consumers can return the plastic bags. The problem, she said, is that people throw the empty bags into their trash where they can easily escape into the environment. Her solution is to fill them with trash which would give the bags a second use and weigh them down for the landfill, or recycle them at one of the Re-Store boxes at a local retailer. A ban, she said, would “take away all these other opportunities.”
Bristol resident, Victoria Fonseca, offered an option other than a mandatory ban. She suggested simply asking stores to voluntary change their practice of using the thin film bags.
“Are we just assuming they’re socially irresponsible?” she said. “Have you asked them to work with you and volunteer to stop using plastic bags?”
That is an option that the ban proponents would not consider.
“I wouldn’t try that here,” said Mr. Jones. “Legislation is how you have to make things happen.”
Hoping to move forward with his ban initiative, Councilman Sweeney attempted to have the town council move toward drafting an ordinance that would ban the use of plastic bags. Council members, Edward Stuart, Nathan Calouro and chairwoman Mary Parella were hesitant to move forward based on the information they were given.
“To mandate an ordinance (after) one workshop, that would be too quick to move on,” Mr. Stuart said.