Cafe Parley is a new weekly series sponsored by CRU Cafe where we sit down with a Newport citizen and discuss a divisive issue they feel strongly about. Do you have an opinion on a local, state, national or global issue that you want to share? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts.
The consequences of our plastic dependency are alarming: Approximately 8 million tons of plastic end up in the world’s oceans each year, and by 2050, scientists say plastic will outweigh fish, pound for pound, in the oceans. In response to frightening findings like these, leaders are striving to find ways to break our dependency on plastic and stop the stream of plastic pollution making its way into our waters and the food chain.
One way leaders are hoping to affect change is by introducing legislation targeting single-use plastic products. More than 100 municipalities around the nation have placed restrictions on the use of plastic bags in their communities. In Rhode Island, Barrington became the first community in the state to ban plastic bags on January 1st, 2013. Aquidneck Island’s three communities – Newport, Middletown and Portsmouth – are preparing to follow suit this year.
On the island, the conversation about banning plastic bags picked up steam last year and was led by Clean Ocean Access. Last fall, COA introduced a Change.org petition that garnered over 1,000 signatures, and by early December, the Newport Planning Board had voted unanimously to ban the retail use plastic bags. The goal is for all Newport businesses to phase them out by Earth Day (April 22) 2017. Several local businesses like Meg’s Aussie Milk Bar, have already stopped using plastic bags altogether and replaced them with reusable cloth ones.
For this week’s edition of Cafe Parley, we sat down with Newport City Councilor John Florez, who’s played an integral role in the creation of the plastic bag ban ordinance, to find out why he feels strongly that it’s needed. Florez said the details of implementing and enforcing the ordinance will be discussed during a meeting on Monday, January 23rd. Read on for our full interview with Councilor Florez.
What’sUpNewp: How and why did the movement to ban plastic bags start in Newport?
Councilor Florez: We have a plastic crisis on our hands. Just to put it in perspective, it’s estimated, that here on Earth we produce about a trillion plastic bags each year. A trillion – not billion – a trillion. That’s an enormous amount. When the plastic gets in the water, it usually breaks down. And when it does, it becomes micro plastic beads. They’re all over and marine animals are consuming them. More than forty percent of marine wildlife – birds and mammals – have some sort of plastic in or on their body. It’s extremely alarming. But even more alarming is that about more than a third of all fish have plastic in their bodies as well. And that’s when it’s particularly problematic for us. Most people eat fish and seafood – especially here where we live near the ocean. We’re eating the fish, and there is a good likelihood that if we do a chemical analysis of our blood, we’ll find trace elements of chemicals that are found in plastic. There is no other way they could have gotten there. So, that’s really the heart of the problem.
Those are the environmental and health components of this, but there is a big business component as well. We are also always thinking about the question: What can we do to improve our brand? What can we do to make it more welcoming to people and businesses that want to come here, and help Newport become a year round economy? Having this kind of open mentality to how we treat our environment, our oceans, our water, our beaches – is critical to that. There is a clear link between how clean our waters and beaches are and tourism. The cleaner the beaches, the more tourists we’re going to have.
So that is the genesis of how all of this started and why I decided to go down this route and pass an initial resolution to begin this. Is it enough just to ban the plastic bag? I don’t know. I am talking with Clean Ocean Access to see what else we can do. Balloons and straws are also a big problem in our waters. So these are things we’ll be looking into – plastics in general.
WhatsUpNewp: Has this been a conversation that it’s been going in City Council for years and years, or is it more of a recent thing?
Councilor Florez: It started in a form of resolution. Before that, admittedly, I was not aware of how problematic the situation with plastics was. A constituent reached out and said: “John what about plastic bags? When are we going to ban plastic bags?” They came by the office. Talked. Brought some literature. And then my eyes opened. I always encourage an open dialogue between local government and constituents because that’s really what I’m here for, to be a representation of our citizens’ voices.
After learning about what sort of a detrimental impact these plastic products have on our waters and our health, we took action. But, in order for this to work, we can’t just ban and expect that our waters are going to be clean. Middletown has to do it. Portsmouth has to do it as well. It’s gotta be island-wide for it to be truly effective and have a positive impact.
What’sUpNewp: Was there a lot of opposition when you first started talking about implementing an ordinance banning plastic bags?
Councilor Florez: Surprisingly, no. And I think, if this conversation was being had two or three years ago, we would have had a lot of opposition. But what we’ve have seen in the last two years or so is an incredible momentum forward on how we are collectively rethinking the issue of plastics in general. It’s been surprising how little resistance we’ve had. Three years ago even, I don’t think we would have had the same sentiment. I think the Chamber of Commerce and the business community in general would have had a very strong opposition. It’s been amazing how quickly the local culture can shift in just a short period of time. Now I’ve had had people come out to me: ” Hey, you are the plastic guy. It’s terrible, man.”
What’sUpNewp: What are some of the challenges you foresee in implementing the ban?
Councilor Florez: I think it could be intimidating to some businesses who’ve been used to a model for many years that has worked for them. I’ve gotten some calls, some concerned people. One gentleman, who owns a clothing store down on Bowen’s Wharf, uses big plastic bags. Realistically, you can’t ban all plastics. It can’t happen. But what we can do is we can pass legislation that would impact certain plastics that are a huge nuisance.
Do you foresee business incurring a significant cost in phasing out plastic bags?
Councilor Florez: We have not found that. We’ve reached out to thousands of communities already and what we tried to do is found out what have been some of the draw backs. The only time anyone has expressed any concern, has been in the timeframe of the implementation process. One of the concerns was around whether businesses were given enough time to change. So I think giving businesses ample time to make the change will be key. I think several months, maybe two to three months, is an adequate period of time.
Another concern that people have had is how this will impact the elderly and the lower income individuals of our community. So we’ve reached out to other communities to find out if this was a factor. We haven’t gotten one single setting that has told us that there were issues with elderly and lower income bracket citizens. We have not seen that.
What’sUpNewp: One point we’ve heard people in town bring up is the question of tourists who won’t necessarily be aware that we’re now plastic bag free here. When we have an influx of visitors in the summer months, how do we handle people bringing plastic bags in from out of town? Will there be signage in public places?
Councilor Florez: I don’t know that the legislation is actually going to impact those individuals. Because the ordinance really only impacts the selling of goods and items and using a plastic bag to exchange them and carry them out of the store.
I don’t really know about signage. It’s a good idea. These are some of the finer points that still need to iron out and, and we probably gonna do so in Monday’s meeting. I think within each individual store they will have their own policy and perhaps small signage. A great example is Meg’s Aussie Milk Bar. You just go there, you buy your bacon, egg and cheese in the morning and they offer you the reusable bag. And it’s got their store logo on it. And so there is a marketing impact there, that you can also factor in as well.
What’sUpNewp: How will you be measuring the success of the ban after it’s been implemented? Clean Ocean Access reported finding more than ten thousand bags from 2013 to 2016. Will you be looking for a certain amount of decrease in that number over the next three years?
Councilor Florez: How big of an impact it will actually have in our waters is yet to be determined. We’re hoping to see a decrease, but there’s also a collective element here that it’s not just one person. We have a responsibility as individuals and as a community. It’s really about raising awareness with other communities. Hopefully others see us and other coastal communities will follow suit. But I can guarantee with the amount of service industry business here in Newport that this will definitively have an impact. I would guarantee that that number of plastic bags collected will drop significantly.
What’sUpNewp: You mentioned a couple of other plastic items – straws and balloons – that may be in consideration for banning in the future.
Councilor Florez: Absolutely. Newport is a very festive town. People buy balloons. They let them off in the air, and they used to do that right out of a can. But where will those balloons land? Most likely they’re going to land in the water. And that’s the kind of plastic that, as I mentioned earlier, that really breaks down into micro plastic. Really tiny beads and those are the ones that get ingested into marine wildlife and ultimately end up in the food chain. So balloons are something we’ll be considering probably in the short term as well.
Do you feel strongly in favor of or against the plastic bag ban on Aquidneck Island? Let us know in the comments.
Editor’s Note: The purpose of Cafe Parley is to spark informed, productive debate within the community. We welcome and encourage the the sharing of unique opinions and perspectives from all of our readers and listeners. We expect participants in the conversation to be respectful to others and use appropriate language. WhatsUpNewp reserves the right to moderate comments deemed inappropriate.