standing Westerly Town Hall

WESTERLY — A new ordinance banning the distribution of single use plastic bags will take effect in Westerly at the end of the year and become enforceable six months later.

The Town Council approved the ordinance unanimously Monday after listening to citizens speak in favor of it during a public hearing. This version of the ordinance was spurred by grass-roots activists who gathered last summer to pick up trash from local beaches. Their efforts received regional and statewide media attention and laid the groundwork for the council's appointment of the Joint Committee on Plastics Utilization and Commerce, which studied the single use plastics issue and helped develop a draft of the ordinance.

Council President Christopher Duhamel thanked the committee for its work. "A lot of effort, a lot of work went into it. I think Westerly is much better off for it," he said, adding that he would have to work on his personal habit of asking for plastic bags at the grocery store.

The ban applies to the ubiquitous bags, frequently used at grocery, discount, and convenience stores, that often find their way into trees, the ocean and the sides of roads. Besides curbing litter, the ordinance is intended to help reduce the amount of single use plastic in the waste stream.

"We are grateful for the unanimous vote and received it as a sign of commitment personally of each town councilor, and collectively as a unified community to move forward together in this responsible shift. President Duhamel’s comment regarding starting to remember reusable bags personally while shopping shows supportive leadership and initiative," Theresa Cavalier, chairwoman of the joint committee, said Tuesday.

Stephen White, of Westerly, president and CEO of the Westerly Community Credit Union, said he has learned about the issue at Chariho High School, where he serves as a mentor to a group of students who are trying develop a business centered on dealing with single use plastics.

"It is a big environmental issue, single use plastics, and from my observation it seems like momentum is in the small towns and communities taking a lead on this because we know on a bigger, federal level at this point in time the politics don't seem to allow them to grasp many of the major issues that are going on in our time," White said.

Pawcatuck resident Thaler Hefel said his Trash Talk community project in Stonington had evolved from his own effort to pick up litter. He said that single use plastic leads to "filthy waterways and is an endangerment not only to us but every other species we share this planet with."

Elizabeth Ellenwood, a Pawcatuck-based artist, explained that her current work is intended to bring attention to the environmental problems caused by littering. She uses discarded material she finds on local beaches to create cyanotype prints.

"It is hard to fathom how to help. Through my artwork I aim to show the specificity of the problem," Ellenwood said. "Each image I create exhibits the personal roles we play as consumers. The plastic bags, straws, bottles and to-go containers, all single use materials that are being used at an unnecessary rate."

Councilor Suzanne Giorno picked up on Ellenwoods' comments, saying that while the plastic bag ban will help, the town must be vigilant. "Just because this ban on the plastic bags goes through does not mean we're not going to have an environmental problem that is related to the fact that people come and trash our beaches," she said.

The ordinance will go into effect on Dec. 31. According to the language of the ordinance, a six-month education period will follow the effective date. After the education period, town officials will be authorized to enforce the ordinance, which calls for a $300 fine for each day a business violates the ordinance.

The committee has been asked to work now on an education campaign to get residents and business owners ready for transitioning away from the use of the plastic bags. Cavalier said the committee hopes to add more members, create a reference page on the town website, and collaborate with other organizations such as the Westerly Library and Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce.

The Providence City Council also approved a single use plastic bag ban on Monday. Rhode Island now has 12 municipalities that have enacted bans. The Stonington Board of Selectmen approved an ordinance regulating the use of single use plastic bags and straws earlier this month.

The Westerly Town Council decided to start with the plastic bag ban despite the committee's request that the council also address single use straws, foam containers and balloons, and to phase in those rules.

Cavalier said she is hopeful that the committee can reignite discussion on the other items with the council. She noted that respondents to a survey conducted by the committee pointed to foam containers as a significant problem.

"My hope is that establishments including restaurants will proactively enact alternatives to foam containers on their own, and elect to start straws-on-demand as soon as possible, especially at the beach. There is an opportunity for marketing this message of environmentally sound business practices that can be captured, and new reusable items with logos can be sold. Business owners speaking to their supply vendors, or a consultant, is a great start. The Westerly community survey spoke volumes to where the consumer’s preferences and demands are — wanting environmental responsibility," Cavalier said.

dfaulkner@thewesterlysun.com

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