Businesses gearing up for Providence plastic bag ban

Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The refrain of “paper or plastic?” at the checkout line is about to be a thing of the past in Providence.

The city’s plastic bag ban is set to go into effect on October 22, prohibiting all single-use plastics at the checkout counter of stores like supermarkets, drugstores and convenience stores.

Some plastic bags will still be allowed, such as newspaper and dry cleaning bags, or bags in the produce and meat sections of grocery stores.

The city is spending thousands of dollars in advertising to get the word out about the ban, which was signed into law by Mayor Jorge Elorza in May.

Large, corporate-owned businesses like CVS and Stop & Shop say they are ready to stop using plastic bags in Providence by the time the ban goes into effect, while several smaller businesses owners who spoke to WPRI 12 said they were either unaware of the ban or not yet prepared with alternative bags.

University Market on Empire Street.

“Wow, this is a horrible idea,” said A.J. Patel, owner of University Market on Empire Street.

He opened just two weeks ago, and said he had not heard about the bag ban until a reporter walked into his store to ask about it.

“This is going to be difficult for us. I don’t know how this is going to work,” he said. “People bring reusable bags to the grocery store. Who’s going to bring a reusable bag to a convenience store?”

But at the Black & White market on Camp Street, the store clerk said he’s a big fan of banning plastics.

“I think it’s good,” said Jose, who declined to give his last name. “It helps the environment. I think they should eliminate straws, also.”

Luis Reyes, the owner of Reyes Liquors on Westminster Street, says he supports the ban but would like the implementation to be delayed.

He said he bought a years-supply of plastic bags for more than $6,000 this year and still has 150 boxes of 1,000 bags each left.

“I’m asking just until the end of the year,” he said. “To help people like me.”

The liquor store plans to get recyclable bags with “Reyes Liquors” printed on them to give out for free to customers, but will also sell non-branded bags.

A spokesperson for CVS Health said the business will be offering recyclable paper bags in all its Providence stores by October 22.

Jennifer Brogan, a Stop & Shop spokesperson, said that company is planning to offer paper bags for free and reusable bags for purchase in its stores, which include East Side Market.

On October 22, she said the first 300 customers in each Providence store will get a free reusable bag.

“While we do not have a formal company-wide ban on plastic bags, we share our customers’ concerns regarding the environmental impact of plastics waste and encourage our customers to opt for reusable bags as the most sustainable choice for the environment,” Brogan said.

She declined to say how much it would cost for Stop & Shop to replace plastic bags in its Providence stores.

Businesses can apply for exemptions to the ban, including a temporary exemption until they can get rid of their inventory of bags.

Other listed reasons for exemptions include a unique reason the establishment can only use plastic bags, or if compliance with the ban would deprive someone of a “legally protected right.”

So far, according to city spokesperson Patricia Socarras, four businesses have applied for exemptions.

Only one–Jerry’s Artarama on North Main Street–has been approved, but only temporarily until the business uses up its supply of plastic bags.

Three other businesses’ exemption applications are being reviewed: Acoustical Building Supplies, Four Seasons Restaurant and Good Game Grille.

A host working at Four Seasons said the restaurant only wants an exemption to use plastic bags for takeout orders if there is a spill or leak.

“No one wants to overburden our businesses,” said Councilwoman Jo-Ann Ryan, the lead sponsor of the ordinance.

She said the council “struggled” with the fines, not wanting to levy hefty penalties but also needing an enforcement mechanism.

Ultimately, the council decided on a warning for a first offense, with a $50 fine for a second offense and $100 for the third offense.

Getting the word out

The city has set aside more than $16,000 for outreach about the ban, according to Socarras, which includes $13,000 in radio ads on both English and Spanish stations, $1,378 in newspaper ads, $500 in social media promotions and $2,119 to print posters.

An ad on Instagram telling users about the plastic bag ban.

Socarras said 67 businesses were called over the summer to let them know about the ban, and Elorza is also personally walking into some businesses to let them know about it.

The city is also partnering with the nonprofit Groundwork Rhode Island, which is spending its own money on targeted outreach.

There’s also a web page with information for businesses, including how to apply for an exemption.

“It’s incumbent on the city to notice everybody,” Ryan said.

She said she thought the city’s outreach plan could be a little “beefed up.”

“It’s going to take a little time to get on board, and no one is going to be issuing fines on day one,” Ryan added.

Statewide debate continues

Legislators came close to implementing a statewide plastic bag ban this year, but disagreements between the House and Senate led to the proposal’s demise.

The debate centered around bag handles, and whether reusable bags need to have “stitched” handles, rather than heat-fused, in order to be permitted.

The Senate passed a bill unanimously in June to ban single-use plastics, with the stitched-handle requirement in place.

But House leaders backed a version of the bill without the stitched-handle rule, which was the result of a compromise from the Task Force to Tackle Plastics. The task force involved the Department of Environmental Management, environmentalists, business leaders and others.

Providence’s ban includes the stitched-handle requirement, prohibiting reusable bags with heat-fused handles or made of non-recyclable plastics. Other cities and towns have similar bans, but the statewide ban bill would have overridden those stricter local ordinances.

“I’m hoping that the state models Providence,” Ryan said. “We want to reduce the dependency on plastic bags, it’s as simple as that.”

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

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