Senate Approves Bans on Plastic Bags and Straws
May 4, 2021
Neither bill generated more than short discussion during proceedings May 4 at Rhode Island College. Senators passed the Plastic Waste Reduction Act, targeting single-use plastic shopping bags, by a vote of 34-2.
A short time later the Single-Use Plastic Straws bill, intended to block food service businesses from providing the implements unless requested by patrons, passed 36-0.
Plastic bag ban
The Plastic Waste Reduction Act (S0037) sponsored by Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, D-North Providence, passed the Senate in February 2020 but was put on hold as the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic became the priority for state legislators.
Republican Sen. Jessica de la Cruz, the minority whip representing Burrillville, Glocester and North Smithfield, was alone among the legislators in RIC’s Sapinsley Hall to speak against the bag ban.
De la Cruz said she supported the measure in the previous two years, but since the last vote she encountered information causing her to withdraw support.
She noted a 2019 National Public Radio article quoting University of Sydney economist Rebecca Taylor, who said her research found shopping bag bans increased purchases of thicker plastic trash bags in some California communities. The bans increased the use of paper bags, resulting in about 80 million pounds of additional paper trash annually, Taylor said.
De la Cruz also recounted a conversation with a constituent who estimated significant increased business costs resulting from the ban.
“In light of the new information that has come to me, I feel I must” vote against the bag ban, de la Cruz said, calling the measure “so well meaning and well intentioned” but not enough to change the opposing vote she planned to cast “out of an abundance of caution.”
A summary of findings in the bill’s text says the best interests of Rhode Island residents and visitors are served by reducing the use of plastic bags while incentivizing reusable bags.
“Single-use plastic bags have severe environmental impacts on a local and global scale, including pollution of our waters, harm to marine and wildlife, greenhouse gas emissions, blocking storm drains and creating litter,” according to the bill.
The measure proposes penalties for noncompliant businesses including $100 for a first violation within a calendar year, $200 for a second and $500 for a third and for each subsequent violation. The fines would be collected and retained by the municipality where offending businesses are located.
The bill includes a statewide implementation deadline of Jan. 1, 2023.
There are already 17 Rhode Island communities, representing 55 percent of the state population, with retail plastic bag bans. Many of those municipalities suspended the regulations during the early days of the pandemic, fueled by paper shortages and false rumors suggesting reusable and paper bags could spread the virus.
A version of the plastic bag ban in the House (H5358) sponsored by Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee, D-South Kingstown, was also put on hold last year, but the latest version hasn’t undergone changes.
The House legislation would prevent municipalities from establishing stricter bag bans than those already in place, but also wouldn’t levy fees on paper bags and would require a provision for stitched-handle bags effectively preventing retailers from offering thicker plastic bags.
Environmental advocates have said a statewide ban on plastic bags is needed to protect waterways, natural habitat, wildlife, and infrastructure. The proposed prohibition received support from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and organizations including the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, Clean Ocean Access, Clean Water Action, The Nature Conservancy, the Conservation Law Foundation and Save The Bay.
The House version of the bag ban received opposition this year and in previous legislative sessions from the Rhode Island Food Dealers Association and the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance, which represents plastic bag manufacturers and recyclers.
Alliance director Zachary Taylor previously said the definition of reusable bags should be based on durability, while advocating bag collection programs within stores to recycle the plastic for use as railroad ties, synthetic lumber, asphalt and new bags.
The Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns opposed the House provision preempting municipalities from passing more stringent bag restrictions, while the Rhode Island Food Dealers Association and the Rhode Island chapter of the Surfrider Foundation asked legislators to require retailers to assess paper bag fees to increase reusable bag use.
Plastic straw restrictions
The Single-Use Plastic Straws bill (S0155), sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey, D-Warwick, also passed. It would “prohibit a food service establishment from providing a consumer with a single-use plastic straw, unless the consumer requests such a straw.”
The bill defines a single-use plastic straw as “predominantly of plastic derived from either petroleum or a biologically based polymer, such as corn or other plant sources,” and doesn’t include straws made of other materials including paper, wood, bamboo, sugar cane or pasta.
The bill, which calls for an immediate start after the legislation passes, would include warnings for the first two violations and $25 for each subsequent violation with a $300 annual cap.
Sen. Samuel Bell, D-Providence, said he previously voted against the bill but voted in favor this time after the removal of language he deemed restrictive.