Government

Bill Would Ban Sale of Nips in Rhode Island

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In 2020, Geoff Dennis picked up 207 nips along the Little Compton shoreline. (Geoff Dennis)

In the span of 5 minutes before work on a recent Thursday morning, George Shuster Jr. picked up 66 nips along 200 feet of West Shore Road in Warwick.

The haul didn’t surprise the 46-year-old. It is why he and other residents involved with the informal initiative Pick Up Warwick would like Rhode Island to pass legislation that would prohibit the sale of these miniature bottles of alcohol, or at least come up with a plan to address this growing amount of litter.

When Pick Up Warwick began in 2014, drinking containers, such as coffee cups, water bottles and beer cans, were the top items members picked up along roadsides and at the beach. Eight years later, Shuster said the amount of nips found on the ground has “grown exceptionally.”

“Today they are one of the top sources of litter,” Shuster said. “Drinking containers are the No. 1 source of litter, about 90 percent, and half of that is alcoholic beverages.”

He said the city’s carelessly discarded nips are easy to find — just look on stretches of street where there are no houses. He theorized some are being tossed out of car windows by underage drinkers or by spouses looking to hide their drinking.

These ubiquitous vessels of cheap liquor have lined the counters of package stores for decades, but during the past several years there seems to have been an explosion of nip sales, or at least of people tossing them on the ground.

Nips have become more popular because they have become less expensive, even if just slightly, than larger bottles of alcohol. They are also easier to hide and discard. For example, a sleeve of 10 Fireball nips — one of the most popular brand of nips collected from the Rhode Island landscape — costs, on average, $12.88 for nearly 503 milliliters of booze. A 375-milliliter bottle costs about $9 and a 750-milliliter bottle costs about $14.

A bill (H7064) recently introduced by Rep. David Bennett, D-Warwick, would ban the sale of any sealable bottle, can, jar or carton that holds less than 100 milliliters (3.4 ounces) of alcohol. A nip is 1.7 ounces. The legislation, intended to reduce pollution from single-use plastics, might be difficult to pass since, as Shuster noted, legislation that constrains commerce is difficult to get through.

The House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources held a hearing Jan. 27 on the Plastic Bottle and Container Labeling Act. Bennett is the committee’s chair.

“Since I’ve come up with this bill, I’ve been looking for them and they are everywhere,” Bennett said. “There’s a telephone pole in Warwick that has the Fireball nips nailed all over [it].”

He noted that after the Rhode Island Department of Transportation cleared overgrowth from around Gorton Pond in Warwick, he found “a couple hundred nip bottles.”

The bill is supported by Save The Bay, the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, the Conservation Law Foundation and Clean Ocean Access.

The American Distilled Spirits Alliance spoke against the bill, saying a “50-milliliter bottle of spirits affords the consumer the ability to accurately measure their alcohol intake.”

A few liquor store owners testified against the bill. Ruxi Dudhia, owner of Conimicut Liquors in Warwick, called the ban “shortsighted,” noting that nips account for up to 25 percent of alcohol sales in Rhode Island and a “ban could result in serious loss of revenue.”

Mike Bogolawski, owner of Colonial Liquors in Pawtucket, noted 30 percent of his business is nip sales. He said “nips are a popular and affordable choice in low-income areas.”

Bennett introduced legislation last year that would have required consumers to pay a 50-cent deposit when they bought nips. But since Rhode Island doesn’t have an existing bottle deposit program, the bill went nowhere. Bennett said liquor store owners told him a deposit would be “too much of a hassle.”

Rhode Island does have a beverage container tax and a litter control tax. The latter has been on the books since 1988 and was originally designed to fund litter control and prevention programs. Much of the money generated by the state’s litter tax has long been funneled to other things.

Three-plus years ago, in November 2018, Pick Up Warwick sponsored an effort to collect as many improperly discarded nips in the city as possible. A total of 3,166 were collected.

The initiative sponsored a similar effort during the last few weeks of January, with a goal of picking up 1,000 nips. “They’re certainly out there,” Shuster said.

In an email to ecoRI News expressing his frustration with this litter problem, Shuster, a lifelong Warwick resident, wrote, “What I find REALLY amazing is when you go around and ask various liquor stores how many nips they sell in the average day. It ranges from hundreds to THOUSANDS. One that I asked said that they sell more nips than any other product. I wonder what the statewide total is.”

He noted that even if Rhode Island banned nips today, “it would take forever to clean up all the ones already discarded.”

Pick Up Warwick isn’t the only community group concerned about growing nip pollution. In South Kingstown, Friends of the Saugatucket was formed last February to promote the well-being of the Saugatucket River. That work includes cleaning up after others.

The group’s first Earth Day event, held last April, picked up and hauled out 1,200 pounds of trash. The effort included volunteers on kayaks on the Saugatucket River, a few others in waders, and the rest fanned out along the river’s banks and tributaries and the sidewalks surrounding them.

Most of the items collected were nips, plastic bottles and wrappers. About 75 percent of the debris picked up was alcohol-related.

Beach cleanups held by Save The Bay and Clean Ocean Access are finding more and more nips along the state’s coastline. For about a decade, Geoff Dennis has been a one-man cleanup crew for the Little Compton shoreline. In that time, the amount of nips he finds has increased.

In Massachusetts, at least five municipalities have banned the sale of nips. In 2018, Chelsea became the first to prohibit the sale of nips. Mashpee’s ban and Falmouth’s ban went into effect last year. This year, Wareham’s ban is scheduled to take effect May 11 and Newton’s on June 30.

No Rhode Island city or town has implemented such a ban.

“We have a big plastics problem and it’s not helping that there are more single-serve containers,” Shuster said.

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