Plastic bag ban goes into effect

Fri, 12/29/2017 - 9:45am
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On Jan. 1, Block Island will join a handful of other Rhode Island communities in “banning the bag.” 

The new ordinance addressing single use plastic carryout bags was sparked by local high school students who started a petition advocating the ban and then took up their cause before various town boards and commissions, finally landing at the Town Council, which after two public hearings, approved the new ordinance in November.

Now that the ban is taking effect, there seems to be a lot of questions on just what it means. One of those questions is whether you can get arrested or fined for walking down the street with a plastic carry out bag, or for bringing bags from off-island. The short answer is no. The ban only applies to retailers on Block Island giving out plastic bags at “the point of sale for the purpose of removing products purchased from retail establishment.” For the purposes of the ordinance, a retail establishment includes the Farmers Market, but not a yard- or garage-sale.

Not all plastic bags are banned. Per the ordinance, a carryout bag does not include plastic barrier bags, double-opening plastic bags, or plastic bags that are larger than 28 by 36 inches.

What’s a double-opening bag? It’s one that opens at both the top and the bottom “to protect clothing or other items for transport,” such as you would get at a dry cleaner. 

A barrier bag is defined as any thin plastic bag that a customer may place items in before taking them to the checkout counter. This would include the bags that one uses for produce, or for bagging raw meats or “other items where damage to a good or contamination of other goods placed together in the same bag may be a problem.”  Besides food items, the ordinance also specifically allows the use of barrier bags for “small hardware items.”

The goal of most communities in crafting bag regulations is to reduce plastic waste that litters our road and water ways. While many people have been using reusable bags for years, others have been resistant, or just “not in the habit.” One method that has been deemed effective in changing peoples’ habits is for retailers to charge for plastic carryout bags. This option is not allowed under Block Island’s ordinance.

A retailer may, on the other hand, sell you a reusable bag. “The bag must be made of washable cloth, other durable woven or nonwoven fabric, or durable plastic film that is recyclable plastic with a minimum thickness of four mils.” For comparison, a typical plastic carryout “T-shirt” bag, so called because of the two handles, and such as the ones formerly given out at the Block Island Grocery, is 0.48 mils.

Speaking of the Block Island Grocery — it stopped giving out plastic carryout bags just before Christmas when they used up their stash. They do have reusable bags for sale. A small one is 99 cents. Interstate Navigation gave out reusable bags as Christmas presents to holiday travelers.

Stop and Shop also sells reusable bags and the insulated ones, while a bit more expensive, are particularly useful for bringing perishable items over on the ferry. The insulation makes them much sturdier than the typical cloth reusable bag, and the zipper around the top keeps items from spilling out. 

So, while you won’t get arrested or fined for carrying around a plastic carryout bag, you can get arrested or fined for giving them out at your retail establishment. The penalties fall under the “general category” of the Town of New Shoreham ordinances, and are not specific to the bags. Violations are subject to a: “Fine not exceeding $500 and cost of prosecution or by imprisonment not exceeding 30 days, or by both such fine and imprisonment…” 

Beware to those who would choose to flaunt the law. The general penalty ordinance states that: “Each day any violation of any provision of this Revision or of any ordinance shall continue shall constitute a separate offense.” Lack of commas may make that sentence a bit confusing, but what it means is that a retailer continuing to give out plastic bags could be subject to that $500 fine on a per day basis.