Lawmakers consider statewide ban on plastic bags

Paper or plastic?

In Rhode Island, you may soon not have a choice. Lawmakers could soon be faced with a vote on a ban on plastic bags in the state.

The Barrington Town Council voted for a ban on all plastic bags in October. The measure went into effect in January.

The town's ban forbids retail stores, farmers markets, flea markets and restaurants from handing out plastic bags with purchased merchandise. They must provide paper bags for free or reusable bags for a small fee.

But what do local shoppers think? Reaction to the ban on plastic bags in Barrington is mixed.

Denia Affonso said she loves it.

"As far as the paper? I really prefer it, I do. I think it's better for the environment, and I find that I actually use it at home in my recycling as well. I find myself using the paper bags to do my recycling instead of the plastic ones, and I like them better for that," Affonso said.

On Thursday night, one shopper at the Barrington Shaw's supermarket came out of the store without any bag at all for her purchases.

"I opted not to get a bag because I figure, 'Why waste?' And I could carry it. So that's what I did," Rebecca Gessow said. "I just had a few things."

"Personally, I like the plastic ones more, just because I can save them up. They're useful around the house," said Evan Zompa of Barrington.

"There are three R's in the whole cycle, right? Reuse, recycle and reduce. And so reuse is what I do. I bring the plastic bags home and put them in the closet. They're my trash bags. This way I don't have to buy Glad Bags or Hefty Bags," said Max Silveira of Barrington.

A group of environmental and marine life advocates is pushing for a Barrington-type plastic bag ban to be extended statewide. They say plastic bags often end up where they shouldn't be -- like in trees or in local waterways.

Several ban supporters testified Thursday night before the House Committee on Environmental and Natural Resources at the State House.

"When plastic bags enter the marine environment, they pose a direct threat to wildlife that can get entangled in them and choke on them. They will never biodegrade," said Channing Jones, of Environment Rhode Island.

Zachary Zeilman is with a marine conservancy group called Surfrider Foundation of Rhode Island.

"Just in this state alone, which is the smallest state in the country, we use several hundred million plastic bags yearly," Zeilman said.

The policy director for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, Eugenia Marks, said there are several reasons to do away with plastic bags.

"It not only impacts wildlife, but these bags, because they float just under the surface of the water, can get sucked into boat manifolds, and disable boats, or they can get wrapped around propellers," Marks said.

Even some shoppers who like plastic said they understand and appreciate the reason for the potential ban.

"Plastic is way more convenient, but I understand why they want to make the switch to paper, because it's more sustainable and all that," Gessow said.

An Audubon Society study from 2007 showed that about 7,000 plastic bags were found floating around Rhode Island shorelines that year. Ban supporters said they hope using more paper or reusable bags will clean up the beaches.

It's unclear if the matter will ever actually make it to the floor for an official vote.