Portsmouth OKs single-use bag ban, goes into effect Sept. 1

Council votes 6-1 in favor of new ordinance

By Jim McGaw
Posted 2/26/18

PORTSMOUTH — After hearing from more than 20 people who said they wanted the town to ban the use of most single-use plastic bags in Portsmouth, the Town Council voted 6-1 to do just that …

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Portsmouth OKs single-use bag ban, goes into effect Sept. 1

Council votes 6-1 in favor of new ordinance


PORTSMOUTH — After hearing from more than 20 people who said they wanted the town to ban the use of most single-use plastic bags in Portsmouth, the Town Council voted 6-1 to do just that Monday night.

The new ordinance, which will require customers of Clements’ Marketplace and most other stores to forgo plastic bags in favor of reusable bags when they shop, takes effect Sept. 1, 2018.

The vote came after a 75-minute public hearing and another 25 minutes of discussion among council members. Only one member of the public spoke out against the ordinance. 

The sole council member who voted against the ordinance, Paul Kesson, said he did so because he felt it granted too many exemptions. Laundry dry-cleaning bags, prescription drug bags and bags for small hardware items are exempt from the new law.

Under the ordinance, no business can provide any plastic carryout bag at the point of sale. All businesses providing plastic barrier bags or double-opening bags need to offer onsite recycling.

First-time offenders would be given warning letters, while a second offense would merit a $150 fine. For a third or subsequent offense, a fine of $300 would be assessed, with the violation heard and adjudicated in Municipal Court.

The council made some changes to the enforcement section of the ordinance to make it clear that the business establishment, and no individual (such as a cashier) would be targeted for a violation.

The ordinance was a result of a push by the nonprofit environmental group Clean Ocean Access (COA) to get all three Aquidneck Island towns to regulate the bags. The group first asked the council to draft an ordinance in August 2016 and renewed its plea last summer after Newport and Middletown had voted to implement a ban on single-use plastic bags starting Nov. 1. 

According to Dave McLaughlin, COA’s executive director, the bags are environmentally unsound and particularly dangerous to marine life — points that were reiterated Monday by residents, several of whom were marine biologists. The plastic breaks down into tiny pieces, are mistakenly ingested by fish and become part of the human food chain, they said.

Koty Sharp, a local resident and assistant professor of marine biology at Roger Williams University, said she started noticing a change in marine life over the past five years. 

“It was very hard not to find plastic debris inside of animals,” she said. “We are eating our own plastic waste and we can stop it if we stop producing more plastic waste.”

Joe Cooper, a Middletown resident, urged the council to do all it can to protect marine life. “A hundred thousand marine animals are killed by plastic bags annually,” he said, citing statistic he said came from the Environmental Protection Agency. 

“We should be leading the charge, not being ambivalent or worse, fighting it,” Mr. Cooper said. “Portsmouth should join the other two towns on Aquidneck Island. How hard is it two keep a couple tote bags in your car?”

More importantly, Mr. Cooper said the town needs to set an example for the children who will inherit the problem. “What is wrong with … leaving them a clean town and a clean planet?” he asked.

Children out in force

Children were well-represented at the meeting. Eight second-graders from Girl Scout Troop 730 showed up, toting signs with pro-environment messages and pleading with the council to enact the bag ban.

“I don’t think it’s fair to all our sea animals that all our plastic bags are going into the ocean,” said Bianca Abbott, a troop member. “The sea animal can eat that bag and get sick.”

The council also heard from an eighth-grader from All Saints Academy and a sixth-grader from St. Michael Country Day School, both of whom supported the ordinance.

Heads from other councils

Two officials from municipalities that have already enacted similar ordinances told the council they shouldn’t fear any backlash from residents, or a drop in profits for local businesses.

“I haven’t gotten one (negative phone call from constituents) since we passed the ordinance,” said Susan Taylor, a member of the Newport City Council. “We found that businesses were really embracing this as a marketing thing.”

Kate Weymouth, vice president of the Barrington Town Council, said her town enacted a plastic bag ban in January 2013, “without incident and with no complaints” from businesses or residents.

There might be some “grumbling” at first, she said, but people get used to reusable bags quickly, Ms. Weymouth said. 

“If it’s inevitable, why not do it now?” she said.

Local resident Donna Bourassa said she takes pride in toting usable bags. “I cringe, quite frankly, when I see people coming out of the store with five or six plastic bags and they’re all double-bagged,” Ms. Bourassa said. “It’s going to be a lot easier of a transition than people think.”

The only resident who spoke in opposition to the ordinance was Thomas Grieb, who said he was speaking on behalf of his wife, Nancy, who could not attend. His wife has been using reusable bags in varying degrees since the 1970s, and also supports most of COA’s efforts, he said.

The organization got the bag ordinance wrong, however, by banning one bag while protecting others, said Mr. Grieb, noting the exemptions in the law. COA should concentrate more on its strength, which he said was education.

“That’s the longtime solution to almost any problem,” Mr. Grieb said,

He also said his wife considered the new ordinance something hypocritical since the town recently started enforcing a pay-as-you-throw system at the transfer station, which requires residents to buy special plastic bags to hold their trash. 

“To add insult to injury,” Mr. Grieb said, the bags come in packs of five — wrapped in more plastic.

‘Expectations are too low’

Mr. Kesson also noted the list of exemptions in the ordinance to justify his “no” vote, and said COA’s focus was too narrow.

“I’m not happy that you didn’t move forward. You moved across,” Mr. Kesson told Mr. McLaughlin. “I think your expectations are too low.”

Mr. McLaughlin responded that the exemptions were added to address businesses such as CVS, which has stores in each community. COA wanted to see a “uniform and consistent” ordinance passed, he said.

“The opportunity to strengthen the ordinance is there and we will do that next. These are the bags that are causing the problems,” Mr. McLaughlin said.

Council member Elizabeth Pedro also criticized the ordinance for having exemptions that were “way too broad.” Another member, David Gleason said he didn’t like the restrictions on most plastic bags because he uses them for other purposes “and they don’t end up on the beach.”

Both, however, said they were voting for the ordinance because it was the clear wish of the majority of people who attended Monday night.

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