Environment Rhode Island is on the warpath to combat plastic bags. Through a campaign using college interns from Brown and URI, the organization is seeking to gain public awareness and eventually prompt city ordinances banning the bags altogether.
“There are a whole host of reasons,” said Channing Jones, Field Associate for Environment RI. “One of the most obvious is that plastic bags aren’t environmentally friendly. They don’t go away, they just break into smaller and smaller bits.”
Unlike paper bags that biodegrade, plastic bags never fully reabsorb into the ecosystem, and simply become smaller and smaller particles. Jones said sometimes these smaller particles can leech into the water supply, and get eaten by fish and clams.
“It not only raises the question of their health, but about pollutants getting into our food chain,” he said.
Jones also said that whole bags or larger pieces become a hazard to birds and sea turtles, which sometimes see the bags as food.
“Sea turtles eat jellyfish, and with a brain the size of a walnut, when you see something white in the water you eat it,” he said.
Sustainability is another issue that Jones raised with bags, citing limited resources of natural gas and petroleum as a reason to halt production.
In order to get this movement off its feet, Jones is working with a team of interns who have been busy writing letters to various media outlets. One such letter arrived at the Beacon last week.
“Far too much of this trash comes from an unnecessary product used for just five minutes before being thrown away: disposable plastic grocery bags that threaten to take hundreds to thousands of years to photo-degrade,” wrote URI student, Joseph Cala. “Nothing we use for just a few minutes should tarnish our state and pollute our treasured natural places.”
Though Cala said he wrote the letter, the same one has appeared in other sources and is attributed to other writers.
Cala said a team worked to put together various versions of the letter that focused on things like wildlife, sustainability and trash collection.
The letters are meant, for now, to spread awareness.
“I think it’s going to be a great initiative, “ said Cala. “A lot of people have been catching onto this.”
Cala said Environment California and Washington have already put bag bans into place in their respective states.
“They’ve been very successful.”
Mayor Scott Avedisian said the bag ban idea has been thrown around before.
“How do you find that balance between pro-business and pro-environment?” said Avedisian.
Steve Arthurs, President and CEO of the Rhode Island Food Dealers Association said there are misconceptions surrounding the plastic bag issues. Three to four years ago, grocers switched to recycled plastic nags, and now offer recycling receptacles to consumers to put their used bags in.
“We offer a lot of different options,” said Arthurs about Rhode Island grocers, “It’s up to the consumer.”
Arthurs said grocers offer recycled plastic bags (usually brown in color), recycling services, paper bags and reusable bags, which are now lead-free.
Avedisian said the introduction of the plastic bag recycling program, which makes bags into various plastic-based products, was part of the pro-business and pro-environment compromise.
But Jones and Environment RI would still like to see the plastic bags banned completely. Jones suggests the use of paper bags, with an additional cost to consumer for their use. This, he said, would help retailers offset the increased cost of paper versus plastic while dissuading people from using paper and encouraging them to bring reusable bags to the store.
Jones said plastic bags are much cheaper, and likely cost stores one cent per bag. Paper bags can cost ten times as much, which adds up over time.
“Ultimately, it would mean an increase in price to the consumer at a time when food prices are already high,” said Arthurs. He said it’s important for consumers to be educated about their plastic bags and how they can still be environmentally friendly.
Most grocery stores in the state have ReStore receptacles in which consumers can place used plastic bags from all supermarkets.
“They don’t have to be from that store,” said Arthurs.
The ReStore program accepts grocery and shopping bags of all colors, dry cleaning film, newspaper sleeves and produce bags.
“They’re reusable,” said Arthurs. “It’s a matter of educating the consumer.”
Arthurs did say that some retailers continue to use plastic bags that are not made out of recycled materials.
“These are usually white, and are cheaper to the retailer,” he said.
Taking a look at the bigger picture, Jones said he is not worried about impacting plastics manufacturers.
“There are a lot of plastic products out there,” he said.
Avedisian said he would be willing to look at the bag ban issue again if enough people feel strongly about it.