When a community rallies behind a bag ban there is no stopping them. The Town Council in Barrington, Rhode Island recently voted to charge the town’s solicitor to draft a disposable plastic shopping bag ban. This decision came on the heels of a recommendation by the town’s Conservation Commission to forbid plastic bags and encourage eco-friendly alternatives such as reusable bags. The Commission’s recommendation also suggested that shoppers should be able to purchase paper bags for 5 cents a pop. As the ban is still in the drafting phase the specifics have yet to be announced, let alone finalized and may change before the issue goes before the council to vote. The final vote is not expected to happen until the fall, so there is time to work out and revise the details. June Speakman, the Town Council President, has gone on the record with her support of reducing plastic bag use. When there is support at that high of a level passing the ban is very promising.
Speakman is not the only Barrington resident who thinks a ban is a good call. “It wouldn’t be a big deal to me. I have so many of these things (reusable bags), who needs plastic?” said Linda Alves, a local who stashes reusable bags in the trunk of her car so they are at the ready when she needs them. So far in Barrington 300 residents have signed a pro ban petition which is also supported by the group Environment Rhode Island. This group is a statewide, citizen-based environmental advocacy organization that is keeping an eye on Barrington with hopes that if a ban is successfully passed this city could become a model for the entire state to follow. "Hopefully, we'll be able to point to Barrington and say this has worked, and that no one is hurting because of it," said Channing Jones, a field associate for Environment Rhode Island. Local businesses are getting behind the ban too, with 14 business owners signing a letter supporting the bag ban. Town leaders have stated that they have not heard from a single business opposed to the ban. Right now all signs are pointing to a bag ban becoming a reality for this coastal city of just under 17,000 people located 9 miles south east of Providence.
American Progressive Bag Alliance Threatens Bag Ban
The only opponent to come forward is the American Progressive Bag Alliance, a Washington D.C. based group comprised of plastic bag manufacturers. The purpose of this organization is to fight proposed bag bans and they claim that bans reduce shopper’s options and do not really help the environment. Donna Dempsey, spokeswoman for the American Progressive Bag Alliance has stated, “Bans are not the way to deal with this. It singles out an American-made product that is 100 percent recyclable.” The Alliance claims that bans threaten 30,000 manufacturing jobs in the United States. This scare tactic attempts to bend the truth. Yes, a bag ban will reduce demand for plastic bags which will have an impact on jobs manufacturing these single use bags, but as plastic bag use decreases reusable bag demand will increase and create additional job opportunities. These new opportunities will offset lost jobs. This argument is also a low blow because it is not the responsibility of shoppers to continue to use environmentally damaging plastic bags in order to save manufacturing jobs. The responsibility falls partly to the manufacturers to create a viable business. Manufacturers should be looking into solutions, like bags that are sturdy yet biodegradable. If they can find a way to make disposable bags that are not harming the environment than they can create a booming business and save American manufacturing jobs. The responsibility also falls partly on the employees to act in their best interest and bring their skills elsewhere if opportunities dry up at their current gig. American jobs and unemployment are hot topic issues right now and the American Progressive Bag Alliance is attempting to turn disposable bag bans and those who support bans into villains by claiming bans cost jobs. This skewed view forgets to take into account that plastic bags wreck the environment and if we destroy our planet the issue of jobs may not seem so important.
Biodegradable and Reusable Alternatives to Plastic Bags
The American Progressive Bag Alliance also claims that 9 out of 10 people reuse the plastic shopping bags they collect. A bag ban would mean people would have to purchase bags to make up for not receiving free bags at the checkout and this new expense is something that most people who support bans do not consider. This is misleading since the bags at the checkout technically are not free. Stores purchase these bags and work that cost into their prices along with their other expenses. Customers are paying for these bags - they just appear to be free. It is great to reuse disposable bags, but there are more eco-friendly options out there. Most plastic bags are primarily reused to line garbage cans or to pick up after pets. People can purchase biodegradable or compostable bags to collect garbage or pick up after pets. These bags will break down quickly and safely once they end up in a landfill so the contents of the bag can also breakdown. This allows the landfill to not become clogged with heaps of non-biodegradable plastic bags and just continue to grow into a giant behemoth. Biodegradable bags are available to purchase and it is a tough argument, especially in light of the current economic situation, to ask people to purchase bags, but it is better for the environment. If stores are no longer purchasing bags their prices should drop, so this savings should offset the cost of purchasing biodegradable bags. Shoppers who reuse disposable plastic bags can also re-evaluate what they used these bags for, reusable bags may be able to take on many of these tasks with eco-friendly compostable bags picking up the slake. Also consider purchasing biodegradable and compostable bags in bulk to get a better deal – since these bags have an extremely long shelf life you can purchase months or even years’ worth of bags to secure a good price.
The last argument posed by the American Progressive Bag Alliance is that a ban on plastic bags will cause an uptick in paper bag use and plastic bags require less energy to produce and take up less space in landfills than paper bags. When paper bags are made from virgin materials they can have a much more severe impact on the environment than paper bags made from post-consumer waste and recycled fibers. This argument is misleading because there is a major difference between paper bags made from virgin materials and paper bags made from recycled materials, but the American Progressive Bag Alliance does not point this out – they lump all paper bags together and use the more negative interpretation of the facts. The Alliance also overlooks the fact that most bag bans account for paper bags too – either by extending the ban to paper or levying a fee on paper bags. Some bans even go so far as to mandate what constitutes an acceptable paper bag by what percentage of reused materials the bag is made from. These measures curb paper bag use and prevent shoppers from replacing their plastic bag habit with paper bags. Arguing that plastic bags are okay because they take up less space in landfills is absurd. They may have a smaller footprint, but they take up that space significantly longer, so any value to a reduced amount of space is quickly negated by how long they lay claim to that space. Paper bags will break down relatively quickly – plastic does not safely and completely break down. It is also worth noting that depending on how the paper was treated it can release dangerous chemicals as the paper breaks down. The landfill issue is moot anyway, because neither paper nor plastic bags should end up in landfills – they are both recyclable and should be disposed of properly. The American Progressive Bag Alliance does support recycling plastic bags and reducing litter; however, in their attempt to make plastic bags not appear to be hazardous to the environment they overlook how paper bags are addressed in many bans and the different materials that can be used to manufacture paper bags.
Bright Future for Barrington
The fate of plastic bags in Barrington will be determined this fall when the Town Council votes on whether to ban plastic bags. In the meantime plastic bags are still allowed and some residents are making the switch to reusable grocery bags. There has been an overwhelming support from within the city to make this change, and it is understandable that plastic bag manufacturers take issue with the ban. It is unfortunate that plastic manufacturers are using their resources to fight bans instead of focusing that energy, time and money to create a bag that fits the needs of shoppers without harming the environment.
Learn more about Barrington’s efforts to ban disposable plastic bags at http://www.environmentamerica.org/news/rie/barrington-first-rhode-island-town-ban-plastic-bags.