Council debates plastic bags

Fri, 10/20/2017 - 9:30am
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The banning of plastic bags for retail check-out of goods on Block Island is the question facing the New Shoreham Town Council.

Council members spent almost two hours discussing the subject with members of the Block Island community on Wednesday night and decided to gather more information and continue the item at its Nov. 15 meeting. About 50 people packed into Town Hall, with some sitting in the hallway, to listen and weigh in on the deliberations.

The New Shoreham Planning Board recommended that the Council add the banning of plastic bags to the town’s health and sanitation ordinance. Board members met prior to Wednesday’s meeting, and were in attendance at the Council meeting. Chair Margie Comings said the board was “overwhelmingly supportive” of the ban, and that it was in line with the objectives of the town’s Comprehensive Plan. Vice Chair Sven Risom said the banning of plastic bags was something the board had been working on for the past 13 months, and some of the state’s other municipalities, like Barrington, Newport and Middletown, had already implemented their own ban. Town Planner Alison Ring said the ordinance change would be effective on Jan. 1, 2018.

“This is an ordinance that is going to induce a cultural change,” said Councilor Chris Willi, who asked the Planning Board who would enforce the ordinance once it goes into effect. Comings said the ordinance is currently “silent” as proposed, but the Town Manager could be put in charge of enforcing it on the island. Town Solicitor Katherine Merolla said the Council could impose a $500 fine, and potential imprisonment of up to 30 days for violations.

Mary Jane Balser, the owner of the Block Island Grocery Store who is opposed to the ban, said the ordinance would cost her “$100,000” to switch from plastic to paper, or reusable bags. “I don’t think it’s a fair ordinance for Block Island businesses,” she said. Balser spent 20 minutes using an assortment of props to make her point, which included depositing a heavy, large box of paper bags onto the floor in front of the dais.

“Nine out of 10 people who come into my store ask for a plastic bag,” said Balser, noting that she thought they were the best bags for carrying goods. “You can’t carry a brown bag very far.” Balser also said that the freight charge for the heavier paper bags would negatively impact her business. “This is not a small thing to me. This is serious.”

In response, Comings said, “If the ordinance works the way we think it will people will bring their own reusable bags,” and that could lead to cost savings.   

Resident business owner John Cullen said he knew there was a chance the ordinance could go into effect, and made a decision to phase out the use of plastic bags at his stores. Cullen agreed with Balser: “Paper bags cost more, and take up more space.” In order to comply with the ordinance, Cullen said, “Maybe we can pass the cost along to our customers.” 

“Personally I support the ban,” said Councilor André Boudreau, who noted that he runs an island business that uses plastic bags. “I think this is a step in the right direction. I don’t mind paying a little extra” to comply with the ordinance. Boudreau said that maybe the island’s businesses could get together and buy reusable bags in bulk.   

Willi said he thought there should be an “educational period” so people, including tourists, are made aware of the ordinance and how to use it. “I support it, but I think it needs to be rolled in,” he said.

Councilor Martha Ball said that “people know” how to use reusable bags, and that it’s been going on for years in other communities. “I don’t think it’s a matter of education,” she said.

“I don’t want to be the Grinch who stole Christmas,” said Second Warden Norris Pike, “but I don’t support it.” Pike said that his building business uses goods that are wrapped in plastic. “It’s crazy,” he said. “I like Mary Jane’s plastic bags. Do we make ourselves feel better by banning plastic bags on Block Island? Does it solve the problem? No.”

Resident Cameron Greenlee said, “We have a petition of over 1,300 signatures supporting the ban.” Greenlee rattled off a list of items from a study noting the harm plastic causes to the environment.

“I support the ban” said Sue Gibbons. “We all have a responsibility to start somewhere.”

Molly O’Neill and Wendy Crawford recounted stories of traveling to Ireland and experiencing a town that had banned plastic bags. Wendy said that her family carted groceries by hand out to their car. Moira O’Neill, who started the petition, and Ruby Crawford stood at the microphone and read details from a study regarding the negative impact of plastic on the environment. 

Realtor Mary Stover said that her company, Beach Realty, has already implemented the use of reusable bags. “We gave out 350 bags” last summer, she said. “People were completely onboard.”

Chris Blane said that he was “in favor of the ban. I think it’s coming, and I think it’s inevitable. I think it’s important to show the younger generation that we can make a difference.”

The discussion on plastic bags will be continued at the Town Council’s Nov. 15 meeting at 7 p.m.