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Saturday, February 1, 2020

Bag it

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff. Lots of videos in Tim's original article (click the title link to see)

johannes vermeer litter GIF by Percolate GalacticDave McLaughlin of Clean Ocean Access put it best when he described the latest bill for a statewide ban on plastic shopping bags: “It’s like a test. You want a 98 but you’ll take a 91,” he said after a Jan. 29 hearing for a Senate bill that drew near uniform support from environmental groups.

McLaughlin and others from local environmental organizations were pleased that the legislation included the so-called “stitched-handles provision” that prevents retailers from substituting thick plastic bags for the traditional thin-film retail bags and calling them reusable.

The Plastic Waste Reduction Act doesn’t impose a fee on paper bags and contains a uniformity provision, or preemption clause, that prevents communities from enacting stricter bans in place of the state mandate.

Last year, the lack of a fee and, to a greater extent, the inclusion of a preemption clause soured groups such as Clean Water Action, the Conservation Law Foundation, and Clean Ocean Access and members of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s Task Force to Tackle Plastics, an initiative that failed to secure any directives last year.

Task force member Kate Weymouth, vice president of the Barrington Town Council, recounted at the recent Senate hearing how back in 2015 Barrington had to revise its bag ban after CVS, Shaw’s, and Talbots used a loophole to hand out thick plastic bags to local shoppers. 

This corporate sleight of hand prompted concern that national chains and their friends in the plastic bag and petrochemical industries would skirt the terms of a statewide bag ban.

But Weymouth and others noted that the proposed statewide ban is one of the strongest in the nation, and, after failing last year, that passing the bill is more important than securing every pro-environment provision.


The Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns opposes the preemption clause on grounds that municipalities should be allowed to pass ordinances to adapt to changes in plastics packaging.

The preemption clause is supported by several businesses groups, such as the Rhode Island Hospitality Association, Rhode Island Food Dealers Association, Rhode Island Retail Federation, and the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce. Fifteen states have preemption laws that prevent cities and towns from even passing bag bans.

Kevin Budris, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, noted that preemption clauses prevent cities and towns from banning plastic produce bags and plastic bags at farmers markets, both of which are exempted in the Senate bill.

Still, Budris said the legislation is a significant step in curbing plastic waste in Rhode Island and urged its passage.

Sen. Sue Sosnowski, D-South Kingstown, chair of the Committee on Environment and Agriculture, said preemption is needed to give shoppers and retailers constancy by having a single rule to follow. The General Assembly can always modify the bill if needed in a year or two, she added.

“I think the bill has really been vetted and the time to move forward is now,” Sosnowski said.

Brian Moran of the New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association, a business group representing some 500 convenience stores in the state, applauded the uniformity provision. He supported the bill but asked that the fines, which he called “harsh,” be cut in half. Moran also supported a mandatory 5-cent fee on paper bags so stores can recoup the higher cost of paper bags.

The paper-bag fee is also supported by Save The Bay, the Rhode Island Food Dealers Association, and the Rhode Island Hospitality Association.

Sen. William J. Conley Jr., D-East Providence, called the fee argument a “red herring” meant to stall the legislation. Conley said he hasn’t received information showing that a fee persuades consumers to switch to reusable bags. Instead, he said, the fee is a cost burden for low-income residents.

“I can’t see penalizing a portion of the consumer population for us to get to where we want to get, which is to get plastic out of the environment,” Conley said.

There was little opposition from environmentalists who were glad to see Sen. President Dominick Ruggerio, D-North Providence, sponsor the legislation again this year and giving it priority treatment by making it the first bill introduced in the Senate this year.

Jonathan Berard, executive director of Clean Water Action Rhode Island, noted that it would be a significant gesture to pass a bag ban on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

A directive like this bill, he said, “is the only way we will be able to make any progress on getting unnecessary plastics out of our lives, out of neighborhoods, and out of our environment.”

For the first time, The Nature Conservancy of Rhode Island publicly supported a statewide bag ban. Sue AnderBois, the organization’s climate and energy program manager, noted that the 16 municipal bans have reduced the debris at properties owned and cleaned by the The Nature Conservancy.

Two students from the Brown University Warren Alpert Medical School spoke about the health problems caused by discarded and degraded plastic bags and other microplastics that leach harmful chemicals into food and water supplies.

“This bill is a great step in the right direction to protect the health of Rhode Islanders. We should pass this bill,” Winston McCormick said.

The bill is also supported by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, the city of Providence, Treasurer Seth Magaziner, and the advocacy group Zero Waste Providence.

The bill was held for further study, as most bills are after a first hearing. The language also needs to be revised to determine if grocery-delivery companies such as Peapod will have to comply with the bag ban.

The House version of the Plastic Waste Reduction Act (H7306) bans delivery companies from using plastic bags. The House bill excludes the preemption clause; requires a 5-cent fee on paper bags; and includes the stitched-handle provision. The bill is sponsored for a second year by Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee, D-Narragansett. No hearing date has been announced.