Westerly's new plastic bag ban differs from surrounding towns'

Westerly — A ban on single-use plastic bags that went into effect Jan. 1 has created a situation where a consumer might find multiple laws for plastic bags within a 10-mile radius.

Neighboring Stonington has already banned single-use plastic bags and straws in stores and restaurants while Connecticut has implemented a 10-cent tax on single-use plastic bags until July 1, 2021, when such bags will be banned at checkout.

Rhode Island does not have a statewide tax or ban on plastic bags. According to the Conservation Law Foundation, the other cities and towns with a bag ban are Barrington, Bristol, Cranston, East Providence, Jamestown, Middletown, Newport, New Shoreham, North Kingstown, Portsmouth, Providence, South Kingstown and Warren. South Kingstown and New Shoreham are the closest of those communities to Westerly.   

"There's been a great wave of change, movement, momentum," said Theresa Cavalier, chair of Westerly's Plastic Reduction Committee, at last Monday's town council meeting. "The majority of businesses did participate in proactively letting their clients know that this was coming."

Even more so, she said, skeptics who previously leveled accusations like, "You're just a hippie, you're just a snowflake, you're just a leftist, you care about the environment" showed up to meetings, learned about the reasons for the ban and shared that with family members.

At McQuade's Marketplace in Westerly last week, manager Roxanne Ferraro spoke about the difficulties of adapting. For starters, the store had to run through its pre-printed plastic bags with the McQuade's name on it. She also noted that while plastic bags are a fraction of a penny, paper bags cost  7 to 15 cents each.

McQuade's used to carry plastic bags and paper bags with handles but now carries only paper bags without handles, as the ones with handles are more expensive, Ferraro said. She has found that customers are not happy about this, pointing out that bags without handles are harder for the elderly to carry.

Ferraro said McQuade's is not passing along the cost to customers right now and is instead trying to evaluate paper-bag usage. Signs are posted in the parking lot reminding people to bring in their reusable bags, and cashiers ask customers without bags if they want a paper bag or to purchase a reusable one.

Outside of ALDI in Franklin Plaza last week, Patricia Tourigny said she has been using reusable bags for a few years and thinks the ban is a good thing to help the environment. Jean Stenhouse said she thought the ban was a good idea, commenting that ALDI had already gotten her using cloth bags.

At the Jonnycake Center of Westerly, marketing manager Matt Levy said the nonprofit is talking to community providers who are trying to distribute reusable bags and will encourage food pantry clients to remember to bring their reusable bags.

"We're only too happy to do what we can to move towards a more sustainable model," Levy said. "We ourselves don't like seeing all the plastic bags on the beaches and all the roads and all that."

Through second half of 2019, committee educates public

The Westerly Town Council adopted Single-Use Plastic Bag Regulations on April 22, 2019, effective Jan. 1, 2020. The ordinance prohibits the distribution of single-use plastic carryout bags at retail stores, restaurants and farmers markets.

It does not prohibit bags used to contain produce or grains, flowers, meat or fish, bakery goods and newspapers. Other exemptions are bags for garbage, pet waste, yard waste, prescription drugs and dry-cleaning. Stonington has similar exemptions.

The ordinance states that businesses in violation shall be given 14 days to gain compliance, and each day of noncompliance can result in a fine of up to $300. Stonington's ordinance calls for fines of up to $150 after an initial warning to comply. 

Cavalier said the ordinance came about after Humans for the Future, Misquamicut Waste Warriors and other organizations said that Westerly must "catch this wave that's going on."

The town council on Oct. 1, 2018, approved a resolution establishing the Joint Committee on Plastics Utilization and Commerce, and the committee held its organizational meeting on Dec. 18.

In March, the committee presented four proposed ordinances: the plastic bag ban, along with ones on balloons, plastic straws and Styrofoam.

The committee launched an educational program at the Westerly Library that involved showing five different environmental movies two times each, with each screening followed by a question and answer period.

It also compiled educational materials that were then sent out to the Westerly-Pawcatuck Downtown Business Association, Misquamicut Business Association and Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce to distribute to their members.

"While there are some negative financial impacts on the small business community, the general consensus seems to be support and social responsibility," chamber President Lisa Konicki said in an email to The Day. "They say it takes 30 days for a person to adopt a new behavior as a routine habit. Hopefully, the public and the business community will continue to make progress towards making recycling a part of the everyday 'norm.'"

She added that many businesses are seasonal and this therefore won't impact them until May.

Looking ahead, Cavalier said she would like the town council to move forward with the other three ordinances the committee submitted.

She said the ordinance prohibiting businesses from providing single-use plastic straws unless requested is on the council agenda for the end of January.

e.moser@theday.com

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