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Thursday, February 21, 2019

Bagging plastics in Rhode Island

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

page s reactions GIFGov. Gina Raimondo is all-in on a statewide bag ban and past opponents of the concept aren’t objecting.

Raimondo gave her support Feb. 14 at the final meeting of the Task Force to Tackle Plastics, an advisory board she created last July with the mission of cutting plastic pollution in the state.

Early on, a statewide ban on plastic retail bags was the focus of the committee, but a few people on the 22-member committee objected.

Tony Fonseca of Packaging & More Inc. in Central Falls had been a regular opponent of statewide bag ban legislation, but he voted in favor of the proposal recommended by the task force.

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) had also argued against a statewide bag ban and other bans on plastics. But Joan Milas, a local lobbyist for the ACC, applauded the efforts of the task force. She asked that she and other local plastics representatives be invited to sit on the task force.

Some task force members, such as Save The Bay, wanted a broader plan that included addressing stormwater runoff. The Conservation Law Foundation advocated for a bottle deposit law and regulations on product packaging.

Others on the committee wanted assurance that a statewide ban doesn’t weaken or preempt existing municipal bag bans or prevent cities and towns from enacting restrictions on other plastics such as straws and foam containers.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The CCA-controlled Charlestown Town Council considered a ban on single-use plastic shopping bags - which would have made it one of the first towns to do so - but chickened out. Instead, the town decided to hawk cloth shopping bags instead. - Will Collette

“You don’t want to take away that local control,” said Dave McLaughlin, executive director of Middletown-based Clean Ocean Access and a task force member.

McLaughlin said a number of communities are considering restrictions on other nuisance plastics that are collected at beach cleanups, such as balloons.

“You want to keep that momentum going,” he said.

“I’m all for uniformity and state law overriding local laws, but only if the state law is as strong or stronger than local ordinances,” said Kate Weymouth, a task force member and vice president of the Barrington Town Council.

So far, 11 Rhode Island communities have bans on plastic bags. Barrington recently adopted a ban on foam containers and other plastics. Cranston is the latest municipality to consider a bag ban. Mayor Allan Fung opposes the ban.

Unlike the existing municipal bans, Raimondo’s bag ban would be the only one to include a mandatory fee on paper bags.

The 5-cent tax would be paid to the store to recover the cost of paper bags. A single plastic bag costs a retailer about 2 cents; a paper bag about 10 cents. Consumers can also use reuseable bags.

“We want to have that fee on paper to incentivize consumer behavior change; to make up some of the additional costs to businesses. But we want to be mindful of the fact that 5 cents for a bag is a lot for some Rhode Islanders,” said Jonathan Berard, executive director of Clean Water Action Rhode Island and co-chair of the plastics task force.

Last year, Providence nearly passed a bag ban with a 10-cent fee, but it was vetoed by Mayor Jorge Elorza after the Sierra Club of Rhode Island and the Racial and Environmental Justice Committee objected, saying the fee is a financial burden for low-income residents.

To avoid that issue with the proposed statewide bag ban, Berard said the task force would be asked to launch a program to distribute free reusable bags to residents. Providence currently offers a bag exchange at city libraries.

Berard noted that the task force agreed that a statewide ban is preferable to municipal bans because it helps businesses comply with a single regulation while reducing confusion about recycling rules for residents.

Raimondo promised that the bag ban would be the first of additional acts by the task force to reduce plastic waste.

“You all know as I know that plastics are an enormous source of our pollution and so this is only a first step,” the governor said. “I want to announce today that I plan to sign another executive order leading to stage 2 of this work.”

A final report from the plastics task force is expected to be delivered to Raimondo on Feb. 18. Legislation will be introduced at the Statehouse soon after. Sen. Josh Miller, D-Cranston, a member of the task force, introduced a bill calling for a statewide ban on plastic bags and foam containers.

A bill banning plastic straws is also before the General Assembly.

Raimondo and Janet Coit, director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, urged everyone to help pass something so that it creates momentum to pass other regulations and/or create programs. 

The environmental group Burrillville Against Spectra Energy interrupted the meeting to deliver a paper valentine to Raimondo stating its opposition to the proposed Burrillville power plant.