A few years ago, my son, Nicholas, was playing on the beach at King Park in Newport. It was New Year’s Day, and overcast but bright. The wind blew off the water with an icy chill you could feel in your bones. Nick was playing with some other boys he didn’t know, doing what kids have always done – picking up rocks off the stony beach and throwing them into the water.
Whether he knew better or not, one of the kids picked up a plastic bottle cap and tossed it into the choppy waves. Recognizing what the other boy had done, Nick shouted out in alarm. “You can’t throw plastic in the ocean!” he said half-scolding, half in shock. It was a lesson he’d been learning from me and my husband since he was old enough to walk.
Before anyone could react, Nick was thigh-deep in the frigid water. He stopped slogging out when he suddenly realized that he was freezing, his little arm and fingers fully extended, the bottle cap floating just beyond their reach. A look of defeat and desperation came over his five-year-old face.
Even though his reaction was was probably unwise – and certainly unexpected – I couldn’t help but be a little proud of that moment. This is the island that he’ll inherit, and it’s his to protect. If we aren’t the stewards of this little patch of Earth, who will be?
Of course, it’s not just my own children that I hope will help care for this beautiful place. We all need to. And Newport’s potential ban on single-use plastic bags is an excellent step toward encouraging that type of stewardship. This coming January, our City Council will vote on an ordinance for the elimination of single-use, carryout plastic bags. That would mean no more plastic bags would be available to consumers from Stop & Shop to a T-shirt shop or anywhere in between.
To be clear, this move will not help fight global warming or stop sea level rise and flooding here. But it will raise awareness and also help to clean up our shores. Aquidneck Island is dependent on a healthy ocean not only for our economy and our wellbeing, but also for our heritage and our legacy.
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Importantly, plastic bags clog our storm drains, put marine life at risk, and create an eyesore. Trapped in watersheds, they create ideal breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Left in the ocean, they break down into tiny pieces – but never fully degrade – and are consequently ingested by animals, eventually becoming part of our own food chain. To date, Clean Ocean Access, the nonprofit organization that operates frequent shoreline clean ups, has collected more than 10,000 plastic bags from our shores since 2013. Let that sink in for a moment.
Roughly 100 municipalities across the United States have passed similar ordinances. Barrington is the only Rhode Island town with an existing ban. Let’s decide to be a leader in this space, Newport.
Dave McLaughlin, the executive director of COA and an obvious proponent of the ban, notes that he’s seeing very little pushback from local businesses on the issue. He’s also working with our Middletown and Portsmouth neighbors to develop resolutions that are “uniform, consistent, and island-wide,” he says.
Banning plastic bags isn’t the answer to all of the environmental issues we face. But it’s not just a Band-Aid, either. It will improve the health of our local waters and, hopefully, spur all of us to think of ourselves as stakeholders in the future of this special place.
There’s no need to wait until January, of course. You can start carrying reusable tote bags to the grocery store and on other shopping trips right now. Or sign COA’s petition supporting the ban on single-use plastic bags. Go see NewportFILM’s screening of A Plastic Ocean tonight (and all of their environmental documentaries). Get involved with 11th Hour Racing, Aquidneck Land Trust, The Norman Bird Sanctuary, Sailors for the Sea, People’s Power & Light, or any other of the myriad groups working to support the environmental health of our region. Vote on November 8.
“There’s a compelling argument that an island in the middle of Narragansett Bay in the middle of the Ocean State would be at the forefront of ocean health,” points out Dave. “We are very blessed to live in this awesome place, and we should use that as motivation to take care of it,” he says. Aquidneck Island is a legendary spot not just by New England standards but in the world at large. Let’s all take charge of the legacy we leave for the next generations of kids throwing rocks on the beach.
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