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Friday, January 18, 2013

General Assembly expected to act to reduce waste

By TIM FAULKNER/ News staff

PROVIDENCE — The House of Representatives submitted its first environmental bill (pdf) of the year Thursday, addressing an issue that is getting significant attention this legislative session: waste reduction.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Arthur Corvese, D-North Providence, requires hospitals and pharmacies to provide public disposal for syringes and other medical “sharps.”

The amendment is one of several trash and producer responsibility initiatives on the way. Other anticipated product-specific bills target CLF light bulbs, mattresses, plastic bags and marine debris.

Editor's note: Rep. Donna Walsh (D) has been, and will continue to be, the sponsor of producer responsibility legislation. She is also vice-chair of the House Environment Committee.

On Wednesday, a Senate commission held its third of four hearings investigating extended producer responsibility (EPR) options for paper and packaging. Several waste and packaging industry representatives spoke against an EPR program.

“Be mindful of programs that are already in place and consider the cost,” said Steve Arthurs, CEO of the Rhode Island Food Dealer Association, an advocate for Shaw’s, Stop & Shop and independent grocery stores.

Arthurs noted that Rhode Island has been a pioneer in waste-reduction initiatives. It was the first state to offer plastic bag recycling collection stores, and the first with a statewide recycling program. But food prices, he said, are increasing and customers and stores would be saddled with the cost of new waste-cutting programs.

Tony Fonseca of the food container distributor Packaging & More wants businesses to promote waste reduction and environmental products voluntarily instead of through state regulations. His Central Fall-based business offers customers such as Dave’s Marketplace many green products, like a new recyclable pizza box, and tips for using fewer paper towels.

Susan Robinson of Waste Management, the largest waste collector and recycler in North America, said EPR won’t increase paper and packaging recycling. “There’s really no evidence that EPR accomplishes its objectives," she said.

Public outreach and education, Robinson said, are the best methods for increasing the volume of recycling. Recent EPR programs in Europe and Canada have only increased costs with marginal benefits. she said. “Anyway you put it, the cost to households will be higher under an EPR program,” Robinson said.

However, Robinson advocated for expanding pay-as-you-throw programs, which require residents to buy a certain plastic bag for curbside trash. Robinson noted that Middletown has achieved the second-highest recycling rate in the state, at 42 percent, thanks to its pay-as-you-throw program.

Middletown launched the program in November 2007. Town recycling coordinator Will Cronin said emphatically that the program is a success. “It increases awareness on what is recycled,” he said.

Cronin also favors EPR for disposal of bulky and potentially hazardous waste such as mattresses and paint cans.

The General Assembly passed a law last year creating a program for returning unwanted paint cans to retailers. The program is funded through a fee on paint purchases and administered by a third party.

Legislators seem to like the EPR programs because they don’t require public money. “If it costs money it’s very hard to get that legislation through,” said Rep. Art Handy, D-Cranston, who has been reappointed to chair the House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources.

Matt Prindiville of the pro-EPR Product Policy Institute told the commission that extended producer responsibility is similar to a bottle bill. The 10 states that require deposits on beverage containers have an 80 percent recycling rate, he said. EPR, he noted, also boosts recycling by businesses, which are assumed to have poor recycling rates due to a lack of municipal curbside collection.

While a bottle bill isn’t expected this year from the General Assembly, Sen. William Walaska, D-Warwick, chairman of the Senate EPR commission, said legislation is a possible outcome of the hearings on paper and packaging. Any action, he said, comes down to one thing: cost.

“We don’t want to make it more costly for businesses to do business in Rhode Island, or increase costs for consumers. It’s a fine line," Walaska said.

The fourth hearing of the Senate Commission to Study Consumer Producer Responsibility Models for Paper and Packaging is tentatively scheduled for Jan. 30.