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Rhode Island Senate panel considers bill to ban plastic checkout bags

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PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island — A Senate panel heard testimony Wednesday on a bill that, if enacted, would make Rhode Island the first state to ban the use of plastic checkout bags by grocery stores and other retailers.

Sen. Frank Lombardo III, the bill's lead sponsor, told the Environment and Agriculture Committee that plastic bags may be convenient and inexpensive but they're littering neighborhoods and harming the environment, including waterways and wildlife.

"We have to stop polluting our air, our water and our land," said Lombardo, D-Johnston. "Is banning plastic bags a fix-all or a cure-all? No. But it's another piece of the puzzle in helping the earth heal itself."

In 2012, Barrington became the first municipality in Rhode Island to ban plastic bags. Cities including San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles have also done so.

A similar Rhode Island bill didn't go to a vote last year.

Channing Jones of the group Environment Rhode Island, which in January delivered a petition to lawmakers with 10,000 signatures in support of the ban, said this year's bill includes notable changes to address concerns that were raised.

He said it does not include a mandatory 10-cent charge for customers requesting paper bags and no longer has the state Department of Environmental Management responsible for enforcing the ban. Enforcement would be left to cities and towns under the current bill.

Most of the testimony Wednesday was in favor of the bill, but Terrance Martiesian of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association was among a few who testified against it. He said the bill would impose higher costs on businesses and more burdensome regulations on cities and towns.

"We want to make our state more business friendly — as drafted, this bill does not do that," Martiesian said.

Sen. Stephen Archambault, D-Smithfield, said that he supports the ban in principle but small manufacturers could be devastated by it. He said environmental concerns must be balanced against business interests and suggested an intermediate step short of an outright ban.

"Maybe putting a tax on the bags isn't all that bad of a thing," he said.

Kate Weymouth, vice president of the Barrington town council, testified that implementation of the ban there was "noncontroversial and effective." She said everyone adjusted easily.

"Barrington hoped to set an example," she said.

A House committee recently held a hearing on the bill and recommended it be held for further study.

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