Plastic bags are bad, negatively impacting poor people is worse, says REJC

The Providence City Council passed an ordinance that calls for the “reduction of single-use plastic bags and encourages the use of reusable checkout bags at retail establishments” throughout Providence. The ordinance is modeled after those passed in other municipalities, most recently in Boston.

“I’m excited to begin the education and outreach component of the ordinance,” said Providence City Council Majority Whip Jo-Ann Rayan (Ward 5). “We’ll be partnering with the City’s Zero Waste Group and the City’s Office of Sustainability to educate residents on the impacts that plastic single-use bags have on our environment, and how the ordinance will be implemented over the course of the next year.  During this next phase before the ordinance goes into effect we’ll work to ensure that all residents are prepared, and those that need reusable bags will have the opportunity to get them at little or no cost.”

Highlights of the Ordinance Include:

  • It exempts certain types of plastic bags such as dry cleaning or laundry bags, bags used to wrap or contain frozen foods or prevent or contain moisture, etc.
  • It allows retailers to retain the cost of reusable bags sold to customers. (Note: large chain retailers are currently selling reusable bags for as little as .25 cents). Retailers spend over $3.9M on bags annually.)
  • Countless studies, beginning with Ireland in 2002, have shown that adding a modest fee for bags reduces the use of single-use bags by more than 90 percent.
  • It gives 12 months from passage to become compliant allowing time for education/outreach and for retailers to use existing stock.
  • It provides an exemption for retailers who may have a hardship determined by the Director of the Office of Sustainability.

“The economic reasons are also significant as the City will save at least $1 Million each year by removing this common contaminant to our recycling system,” noted Ryan. “This initiative will also help to remove 95 million single-use bags annually from our landfill.”

Not everyone is happy with the ordinance, however. The Racial and Environmental Justice Committee (REJC) is a Black, Indigenous, and People of Color-led entity working with the Providence Office of Sustainability to develop a system and process that directly integrates voices and concerns of Black, Indigenous and people of color communities into city sustainability and resiliency planning processes.

In a letter, REJC writes, “Plastic bags are bad, but introducing legislation that negatively impacts poor people is not a solution. Providence has a history of inflicting policy that fines, taxes, or otherwise impairs the ability of residents to thrive-low income residents in particular. We have evaluated the proposed “plastic bag ordinance,” and through this process, dozens of our members have raised concerns about the methodology of charging 10c per bag:

  • This policy assumes that everyone has equal access to reusable bags. That is not the case for low income families who do not drive a car. Many community members will struggle to pay the fee (ex: public transit riders, especially those shopping for larger families and generally needing more bags).
  • This is an imposition of yet another financial burden by the government, but not one that helps to meet basic needs.
  • Corporations have a role to play in improving our city. This policy places the burden of resolving this issue solely on the shoulders of consumers.

The REJC letter continues:

“The REJC bases decisions on the values of The Framework for a Racially Equitable and Just Providence, which it developed by diverse community members in 2017. We believe in moving towards a sustainable local economy with zero waste (Principle #9). We also believe that efforts to move towards this economy must also uphold all of our 11 principles, including that of centering conversations about the future of Providence on the communities most affected by inequities (Principle #1).

“REJC has found that equitable and transformative models for change prove to dissolve risks of unintended punitive effects over time. We are currently researching models that will support the eradication of plastic waste as well as benefit Providence communities of color. We hope to work with other stakeholders to achieve this goal. Our timeline is to identify alternatives and improvements to the proposed plastic bag ordinance and review them with our base members between now and April 14th.

“For these reasons REJC asks to change the ordinance as written and urges those who seek to improve the wellbeing of all Providence residents to work with us and begin a community-led process to approach zero waste in a way that upholds racial equity.”

Aaron Jaehnig, chapter chair of the Rhode Island Chapter of Sierra Club calls the hasty pace of the ordinance passage, “shameful.”

A single use plastic bag ban in the Capitol City is an obvious and necessary step in the right direction, but to do it hastily without properly engaging the Racial and Environmental Justice Committee is shameful. The REJC’s mission is to ensure the voices of black, indigenous and people of color, often ignored by movements led by large environmental conservation groups such as this one, are amplified and centered in sustainability conversations. To ignore the REJC’s request, for a slightly extended timeline to ensure larger stakeholder input from the most impacted working class communities of color, is an embarrassment and does more harm than good for long term movement building. We at the RI Chapter of Sierra Club are dedicated to holding the Providence City Council’s feet to the fire to ensure the potential negative impacts of this ordinance are mitigated. It is not a victory when the solution to an environmental issue also disproportionately impacts the same communities that have been historically most impacted by environmental injustice.

Now that the ordinance has passed, a full month before the proposed REJC date of April 14, Providence’s Zero Waste Group and the Office of Sustainability has one year to implement a grassroots education and outreach campaign for both consumers and retailers. Part off that outreach will be to get reusable bags to low-income residents who will be economically affected by the ordinance.

 

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About Steve Ahlquist 528 Articles
Steve Ahlquist is a frontline reporter in Rhode Island. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for half a decade. Uprise RI is his new project, and he's doing all he can to make it essential reading. atomicsteve@gmail.com

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