BARRINGTON, R.I. (AP) — Answering the question 'paper or plastic' could get a lot easier in one Rhode Island town if local leaders support a call to ban plastic shopping bags.
Hundreds of residents and more than a dozen business owners in Barrington are pushing to scrap the sacks, which they say take up valuable landfill space and litter streets, streams and shorelines. But critics — including an alliance of plastic bag manufacturers — say prohibiting the ubiquitous bags would only reduce consumers' options while doing nothing to help the environment.
The Barrington Town Council voted on Monday to direct the town's solicitor to draft a proposed ban. The move follows a recommendation by the town's Conservation Commission to prohibit plastic shopping bags to encourage shoppers to bring their own reusable bag. Under that recommendation, shoppers could also purchase paper bags for 5 cents each.
"It wouldn't be a big deal to me," said Linda Alves, who was shopping for home office supplies Wednesday in Barrington, an affluent town 20 minutes from Providence. Alves opened the trunk of her car and pulled out two reusable bags. "I have so many of these things, who needs the plastic?"
San Francisco was the first U.S. city to ban plastic shopping bags back in 2007. Several cities have followed, including Los Angeles and Seattle. The bags are banned throughout Hawaii. Westport, Conn. is the only New England community with such a ban.
"It's a matter of changing habits, and that's not always easy," said Jonathan Cunitz, a member of Westport's Representative Town Meeting and an advocate for the ban, which went into effect in 2009. "But people are now more conscious of the environment and we don't see plastic bags on the street or on our waterfront."
But an organization founded by plastics manufacturers to fight proposed bans argues that outlawing the bags could threaten more than 30,000 plastic bag manufacturing jobs in the U.S. Donna Dempsey, spokeswoman for the Washington D.C.-based American Progressive Bag Alliance, said the plastic bag has gotten a bad rap.
Nine out of 10 consumers reuse plastic bags, Dempsey said, and would likely have to buy plastic bags if they're no longer given out to shoppers. She said plastic bags require less energy to make than paper bags, and take up less space in landfills.
"Bans are not the way to deal with this," she said. "It singles out an American-made product that is 100 percent recyclable. Recycling is the better way to address plastic bag litter."
Barrington resident Diane St. Angela said she uses plastic shopping bags to clean up after her two cats.
"I use the plastic bags," she said. "You shouldn't litter, but I'm against a ban for practical reasons."
More than 300 local residents have signed a petition in support of scrapping the plastic bags. The proposal also has the support of groups like Environment Rhode Island.
Fourteen business owners have signed a letter supporting the proposal. One was Holly Smith, owner of Hollies on the Avenue, a gift and home decor store. Smith said her store switched to paper bags a few years ago because they were cheaper and because they looked better.
"I cannot imagine that this would be a problem for small businesses," she said. Smith predicted the ban could prove to be a boon if local businesses created reusable bags featuring their logo.
Town leaders said they haven't heard from businesses that oppose the ban.
Town Council President June Speakman said the details of the proposed ban may change before the council votes on enacting it. A final vote isn't expected until the fall. But she said she supports the general idea of reducing plastic bag use. "I'm in favor of using fewer plastic bags," she said.
If Barrington enacts the ban, Environment Rhode Island may encourage state lawmakers to adopt a statewide policy prohibiting plastic shopping bags, according to Channing Jones, a field associate for the group.
"Hopefully, we'll be able to point to Barrington and say this has worked, and that no one is hurting because of it," he said.