Sale of Nips in Rhode Island Likely Illegal Already
March 6, 2023
The law has gone unenforced for three decades. In fact, few people walking the halls of the Statehouse or working inside the state Department of Environmental Management headquarters on the other side of I-95 even know it exists.
Like most Rhode Island environmental laws, which are celebrated when the General Assembly adopts and the governor signs, occasionally during some staged production, RIGL 23-18.12-3 was quickly forgotten.
In 1989, the Legislature passed the Beverage Container Recyclability law. It states, among other things, retailers can only sell beverages in containers that “have attained a 50% recycling rate by 1992.”
The 34-year-old law was recently brought to the attention of lawmakers by South Kingstown resident David Flanders. He and fellow Rhode Islanders have spent the past year or so trying to get those ubiquitous 50-milliliter plastic containers containing alcohol — better known as “nips” — banned.
In reality, the sale of nips in Rhode Island has likely been prohibited for the past 31 years. But enforcing the law is a challenge, since no state entity keeps track of beverage container recycling rates.
Plastic bottles that are less than 2 inches tall and 2 inches in diameter, which include most nips, are too small for the Central Landfill’s single-stream recycling sorting equipment to process, according to the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation.
“Resource Recovery advises that plastic beverage containers should carry a minimum of 2” in diameter across a minimum of 2” in height to be eligible for inclusion in the State’s mixed recycling program,” Jared Rhodes, the organization’s director of policy and programs, wrote in a recent email to ecoRI News. “Additionally we ask that, any such container always be empty and rinsed whenever possible. Otherwise Resource Recovery does not maintain datapoints on the recycling rates of specific beverage container types.”
Flanders has sent letters to Sen. Susan Sosnowski, D-South Kingstown, Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee, D-South Kingstown, Rep. Kathleen Fogarty, D-South Kingstown, and the attorney general’s office to remind them of the law. DEM is in charge of enforcement.
“It doesn’t surprise me that so few people know of this law, as so few current legislators were in those positions 34 years ago,” Flanders wrote in his recent letter to Attorney General Peter Neronha. “So, I am now appealing to you to finally enforce this much-needed legislation. My driving thought is that we are a nation of laws; and that we cannot pick and choose which of them we will obey and enforce, and those we won’t. Our system doesn’t work that way.”
Flanders told Neronha he wrote to his local representatives regarding this matter and noted “Sen. Sosnowski replied that she conferred with Senate legal counsel who confirmed that indeed, the law does state that which I interpreted. Rep. McEntee telephoned me to say that, as an attorney herself, I was correct in my interpretation. Neither of them had ever heard of this General Law.”
Flanders is a board member of the Friends of the Saugatucket, a nonprofit founded to protect the health of the Saugatucket River and its watershed. The Wakefield-based organization is at the forefront of the push to ban nips in Rhode Island.
These 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.
Supporters of the effort to ban nips, including Pick Up Warwick, have noted these tiny plastic bottles are one of the top sources of litter being picked up along roadsides and off beaches. They also gum up wastewater treatment facilities.
During a recent conversation with ecoRI News, Flanders noted the law doesn’t make a distinction between glass and plastic beverage containers — “it’s all containers.”
Besides being an eyesore, he said, these containers get washed into storm drains that empty into local waterways, where they slowly degrade and continue to pollute for decades. He added that it’s “frustrating there is a law on the books that has been completely ignored.”
Last year, Rep. David Bennett, D-Warwick, introduced a bill that would have banned 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 was intended to reduce pollution from single-use plastics.
The bill was supported by Save The Bay, the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), and Clean Ocean Access. It was held for further study.
This year, McEntee has introduced a bill (H5502) that would give a 10-cent refund for returned containers “not less than 50 milliliters nor greater than 3 liters.”
ecoRI News recently spoke with Sosnowski, who admitted she wasn’t aware of this law. She said the proliferation of nips “is causing real problems. You see them everywhere.” She believes a total ban “would be better than the law on the books.”
She told Flanders “legal counsel has contacted DEM asking for the latest report or letter on beverage containers that are not in compliance” with the law.
“What we need is not a deposit on nips; we need RIDEM to enforce this 34-year-old legislation and prohibit the sale of nips in the first place,” Flanders said.