Bag Ban a Statehouse Priority But Comes With a Clause


PROVIDENCE — A statewide ban on plastic retail bags has shot to the top of legislative priorities for 2020.

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio’s bill (S2003) was the first introduced to the Senate this year. Ruggerio listed banning single-use plastic bags, and reducing plastic straw use, in his opening address on Jan. 7.

The Plastic Waste Reduction Act picks up where it left off last June, when it was approved by the Senate but failed to get a hearing in the House before the end of the 2019 session. The current bill has a provision for stitched handles, which discourages retailers from replacing the traditional thin-film plastic bags with thicker plastic bags and marketing them as reusable.

The bill also omits a fee on paper bags. Fees have proven to dramatically increase the use of reusable bags by shoppers, but in this proposed ban and others such as one in Providence, the fee was dropped because of the cost burden to low-income shoppers.

A 2017 study found that a 7-cent fee on all single-use bags in Chicago resulted in a 42 percent drop in disposable shopping bags and a 20 percent increase in reusable bag use.

One sticking point with environmentalists in Ruggerio’s bill is the uniformity clause. The provision mandates that the state bill supersedes all existing and future municipal bag bans, of which there are 16 in Rhode Island.

Ruggerio insisted that the preemption clause offers uniformity for consumers, retailers, restaurants, and bag distributers. Ruggerio’s spokesperson, Greg Pare, also correctly noted that the bill is no less stringent than any of the existing municipal bag bans in the state and therefore isn’t restrictive.

Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee, D-Narragansett, will sponsor the House bill again this year, but she opposes the uniformity clause, saying she wants the state law to serve as “a floor” for communities that may choose to add more stringent amendments, such as a fee.

Barrington, the first Rhode Island municipality to pass a bag ban, in 2012, amended its law in 2016 after some local retailers began offering free, thicker plastic bags as reusable.

Barrington Town Council vice president Kate Weymouth championed the town’s bag ban and has been watchful of attempts to skirt the rules.

Weymouth served on Gov. Gina Raimondo’s Task Force to Tackle Plastics, which culminated in Ruggiero’s bill last year.

“The uniformity clause, which sets this bill as the ceiling, not the floor, is the only piece that disappoints,” Weymouth said of the 2020 version.

Task Force to Tackle Plastics co-chair Jonathan Berard, executive director of Clean Water Action Rhode Island, said last year that he opposes the preemption clause because it prevents municipalities from innovating with their waste management.

“Therefore, they should have the ability to pass policies and enact programs to manage this waste, up to and including prohibitions to prevent problematic items from entering the waste stream,” Berard said. “State law should create a set of minimum standards, not a cap, and municipalities should be able to enact more stringent laws if they so choose.”

Currently, eight states have bans on single-use plastic bags: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon, and Vermont. The New York law, passed in 2019, allows counties to impose a 5-cent fee on paper bags. For every fee collected, 2 cents goes to the municipality and 3 cents to a state environmental fund.

Providence enacted a ban on Oct. 22, 2019. A ban in East Providence took effect on Nov. 7 of last year. A bag ban in Seekonk, Mass., began Jan. 1.

The “ask-first” straw law (S0202, H5314) passed in the Senate but died in House committee last year. The bills are expected to be reintroduced this year.

Raimondo and House Speaker Nicolas Mattiello didn’t respond to requests for comment on the bag ban legislation.


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