Plastic bags kill wildlife, clog waterways and pack landfills. Discarded bags can spread malaria if they collect rainwater, offering mosquitos a casual breeding ground. In recent years, local and national governments have begun phasing out or banning lightweight plastic shopping bags.

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 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 the City Council Meeting on Monday, January 25th.

But alternatives are not necessarily greener, according to some reports and opponents. People buy more plastic trash bags when shopping bags are unavailable, and a British government study found single-use paper bags contribute more toward global warming than plastic bags.

Not So Straightforward:

For some activists, the effort to reduce the use of plastic shopping bags is both urgent and too late. According to a 2008 estimate in Waste Management, people around the world discard between 500 billion and 1 trillion plastic bags a year. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) lists single-use plastic bags as a major contributor, along with food wrappers and fishing nets, to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — vast, shifting waves of trash that often arrive via storm drains and rivers and can entangle marine life or be ingested. According to a 2014 estimate published in PLOS ONE, more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic (not all from bags) weighing a combined 250,000 tons are floating in the world’s oceans.

Yet substitutes also offer cause for concern. A comprehensive 2011 study by the British environmental agency argued that plastic bags are greener than many alternatives. A paper bag must be used four or more times “to reduce its global warming potential to below” that of conventional plastic bags. The reason is that paper production — from the felling of trees to the emissions and effluent from paper factories — is dirty. The study found “no significant reuse of paper bags,” not even as trash-can liners.

World-Wide Legislation:

With a referendum in November 2016, California became the first state to ban single-use plastic bags, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures, which keeps an active list of American laws. Thicker, reusable bags are still available for purchase for 10 cents. Before California, cities often organized the bans: In 2016, for example, Cambridge became the first Massachusetts city to ban plastic bags altogether and require merchants to offer paper bags for a fee of no less than 10 cents. By contrast, Missouri’s legislature in 2015 forbid cities and counties in the state from enacting plastic bag bans.

The European Union passed legislation in 2015 aiming to cut plastic bag use in half by 2019 and half again by 2025. E.U.-member France went further, banning single-use plastic bags on July 1, 2016, and phasing in other, more restrictive bans in the upcoming years – including the prohibition of plastic cooking utensils by 2020.

Do these bans work? They do appear to reduce the number of shopping bags used, but the effect on demand for (potentially pernicious) alternatives is unknown.

  • Five years after Ireland instituted a 15 Euro cent levy on plastic bags in 2002 – Irish stores had been giving out 1.2 billion each year for free – a paper published in Environmental and Resource Economics suggested a 90 percent reduction in use.
  • One year after its ban San Jose reported “a reduction in bag litter of approximately 89 percent in the storm drain system, 60 percent in the creeks and rivers, and 59 percent in city streets and neighborhoods.”
  • Researchers at Cardiff University, in the United Kingdom, found that a fee for plastic bags introduced in October 2015 has led to a sharp decline in the number of shoppers who take single-use bags at checkout, from 25 percent to 7 percent after one year.
  • China, which banned many types of plastic bags in 2008, claims some successes. But some reports suggest the rule has been difficult to enforce.

Academics have measured consumer behavior and public opinion on plastic bags in many countries, including Turkey, Uganda and Canada. A 2016 study in Social Marketing Quarterly examines how shoppers respond to different incentives for bringing their own shopping bags – such as avoiding a fee or paying a tax – and remarks “that a penalty framed as a tax may be more effective in motivating shoppers to bring reusable bags.”

Local Legislation:

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. It is the goal of Clean Ocean Access to have all three communites on Aquidneck Island moving in the right direction regarding a plastic bag ban by Earth Day, which is Saturday, April 22nd.

At a Newport Energy & Environment Commission meeting in September of 2016, Clean Ocean Access presented the following presentation.

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Proposed Newport Ordinance:

The following is a draft of the proposed ordinance for the Plastic Bag Ban in Newport;

Newport- Bring Your  Bag

Approved by Newport Energy & Environment Commission on November 14, 2016

Approved by the City of Newport Planning Board on December 5, 2016


The purpose of this ordinance is to improve the overall environment in the City of Newport for the health, safety, and welfare of its residents and for the protection of our wildlife and coastal ecosystems by:

  1. Encouraging the use of reusable carryout bags and banning the use of plastic bags for retail checkout of goods,
  2. Maintaining the ability to recycle single-use plastic bags, and
  3. Reducing the number of single-use bags. Retail establishments are encouraged to make reusable carryout bags available for sale.


As used in this ordinance , the following terms shall have the meanings indicated:

PLASTIC CARRYOUT BAG -A bag used by the customer at the point of sale for the purpose of removing products purchased from retail establishment. “Carryout bag” does not include plastic barrier bags, double-opening plastic bags, or plastic bags measuring larger than 28 inches by 36 inches.

DOUBLE-OPENING PLASTIC BAG -Any thin plastic bag with a double opening (top and bottom) to protect clothing or other items for transport.

PAPER BAG -A paper bag that is fully recyclable overall and contains a minimum of 40% post­ consumer recycled content and contains no old growth fiber.

PLASTIC BAG -A bag where any portion of the bag is made of plastic, including but not limited to those called “biodegradable, “compostable” or “oxo-biodegradable .

PLASTIC BARRIER BAG -Any thin plastic bag with a single opening used to:

  • Transport fruit, vegetables, nuts, grains, small hardware items, or other items selected by customers to the point of sale;
  • Contain or wrap fresh or frozen foods, meat, or fish, whether prepackaged or  not;
  • Contain or wrap flowers, potted plants, or other items where damage to a good or contamination of other goods placed together in the same bag may be a problem; or
  • Contain unwrapped prepared foods or bakery goods.

RECYCLABLE PLASTIC – Plastic that meets the current Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation’s standards. (language to be included to automatically reference the active RIRRC standard).

RETAIL SALES ESTABLISHMENT -Any enterprise whereby the sale or transfer to a customer of goods in exchange for payment.. This does not include sales of goods at yard sales, tag sales, other sales by residents at their homes, and sales by nonprofit organizations. 

REUSABLE CARRYOUT BAG -A bag, with handles which are stitched and not heat- fused, that is specifically designed and manufactured for multiple reuse. 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.


Other than reusable carryout bags as provided in this ordinance, no retail sales establishment shall make available any plastic carryout bags or plastic bags (either complementary or for a fee) .

  • Plastic carryout bag does not include plastic barrier bags, double-opening plastic bags, or plastic bags measuring larger than 28 inches by 36 inches.
  • All retail establishments that provide plastic produce, product, or double-opening bags must offer a recycling opportunity on site and must recycle any plastic collected in accordance with current laws.
  • Retail sales establishments may make reusable carryout bags available for sale to customers .

Enforcement;  violations  and penalties

  1. This ordinance shall be implemented, administered and enforced by a division designated by the City Manager.
  2. Any potential violation of this ordinance, shall be investigated and determined whether a violation has occurred, by the designated division.
  3. If a violation has occurred, then the designated division shall be given written notice to the retail establishment, ordering cessation that the violation is occurring and must stop. (Chris can adjust, but the theme remains).
  4. The retail establishment performing the violation is responsible for confirming, in writing, that the violation has ceased to the designated division within 14 days of receipt of the notice.
  5. A second violation after the fourteen-day response period of the first violation and within one year of the receipt of the confirmation that the violation had ceased shall incur a penalty of $500.
  6. A third violation within one year of the second and any subsequent violations shall incur a penalty of $1,000.
  7. G. Each occurrence of a violation after the first, and each day that such violation continues, shall constitute a separate violation and may be cited as such.


Any violation charged under this ordinance may be appealed, in writing, to the City Manager within 14 days of receipt of a written notice of violation. The City Manager may waive the individual violation or the requirements of this ordinance on showing of good cause or undue hardship.

What About “Biodegradable” Plastic Bags?:

In 2010, raw plastics production in the U.S. used the energy and natural gas equivalent of 172 million barrels of oil, government figures suggest. But some newer plastics are made from vegetable matter, allowing manufacturers to claim their plastics are biodegradable. In theory, that means these plastics can be used to feed bacteria that convert them into water, carbon dioxide and biological matter. But the process rarely works in a landfill – these products need to be composted with the right microbes. When they’re not, they may not break down at all or can release methane, a greenhouse gas. So-called starch-polyester bags, made from a blend of vegetable matter and synthetic plastics, had the highest global warming impact in the 2011 study conducted by the British environmental agency “due to the high impacts of raw material production, transport and the generation of methane from landfill[s].”

Researchers have looked into the policy challenges of biodegradable plastics, how they break down in the ocean and wider environmental impacts.

Plastic & Our Health:

Besides assuming a deviant place in marine ecosystems, there are concerns about the synthetic compounds in plastic that may be oozing into our food. One of the main building blocks of plastics, bisphenol A (also known as BPA), has been shown to stimulate breast cancer cells and damage the quality of rat sperm. Phthalates are another subject of disquiet.

Arguments For Plastic:

Proponents of plastic bags argue that they are hygienic and cheap and preserve foods that would otherwise spoil. A number of lobbies have worked to confound legislation that would reduce the availability of plastic bags. In California, for example, The Washington Post found that the American Progressive Bag Alliance – a Washington-based group run by a plastics lobby – spent over $3 million in the fourth quarter of 2014 to oppose California’s attempts then to legislate a ban. (a project of the American Chemistry Council) is supported with funds from large multinationals like Dow Chemical and ExxonMobil. Some organizations – such as the Plastics Industry Association, which directs visitors to the American Progressive Bag Alliance and — support recycling as a solution, rather than less plastic.

Plastic shopping bags are widely reused as trash-can liners, the British environmental agency study points out. When they are banned, the study adds, consumers purchase more plastic trash bags: “The reuse of conventional HDPE [plastic] and other lightweight carrier bags for shopping and/or as bin-liners is pivotal to their environmental performance and reuse as bin liners produces greater benefits than recycling bags.”

Anti-Plastic Lobbying and Activism:

The California plastic bag ban received support from the California Grocers Association. Grocery stores stood to benefit because the law mandated they charge 10 cents for reusable bags.

Other Resources:

  • This 2011 E.U. study shows, among other things, that residents of eastern E.U. members and Portugal use the most plastic bags in the union.
  • Journalist’s Resource profiled a 2016 paper on gender stereotypes and environmentally friendly behavior that found some people think recycling is feminine.
  • A 2015 paper in the Journal of Marketing found that people who bring reusable grocery bags on their shopping trips may purchase more junk food.
  • NOAA has fact sheets on microplastics in the ocean and plastic marine debris.

Sarah McClutchy, contributor for What’sUpNewp, contributed to this story, also recent research and data from a report written by Dave Trilling, a contributor to Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center and the Carnegie-Knight Initiative, were used.

Ryan Belmore is the Owner and Publisher of What's Up Newp. He was born and raised in Rhode Island and graduated from Coventry High School. He serves as Vice President of Fort Adams Trust and serves on the Board of Directors for Potter League for Animals. Ryan also is currently the Senior Editor - North America for Mountain News, publisher of OnTheSnow. Ryan is a member of Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers and North American Snowsports Journalists Association (NASJA).