Bill Would Ban Plastic Bags, Bottles and Styrofoam

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Sen. Joshua Miller, D-Cranston, is going for the zero-waste trifecta. His Plastic Waste Reduction Act enacts a simultaneous statewide ban on plastic bags, Styrofoam and single-serve, plastic water bottles.

Miller submitted the bill without the urging of an environmental group. A March Senate hearing was therefore a lopsided debate, as Miller was the only person to speak in favor of the legislation. All of the submitted testimony opposed banning these common sources of litter and instead called for improving recycling programs.

Business groups such as the American Chemistry Council testified against the legislation. Lobbyists from the Rhode Island Hospitality Association (RIHA), Rhode Island Food Dealers Association (RIFDA) and the Dart Container Corp. also spoke against the bill.

Antonio Fonseca, co-owner of the food container distributor Packaging & More Inc. of Central Falls, serves on the RIHA and RIFDA boards. Fonseca is the face of opposition to the succession of plastic-bag bills proposed at the Statehouse in recent years. He noted that all of the items in Miller’s bill are recyclable. He said most plastic bags contain up to 30 percent of recycled content. Foam to-go containers, he added, are ideal for popular Rhode Island foods like fish and chips, while they cost about a tenth of the cost for paper-based takeout containers.

Stephen Rosario of the American Chemistry Council said foam is maligned and misunderstood. Like any other container, foam only becomes trash if people don’t behave responsibly, he said.

“You are not going to reduce litter by banning one material,” Rosario said. “If I’m going to litter, it doesn’t matter if I have a paper cup, a compostable cup or a foam cup.”

The Rhode island Resources Recovery Corporation (RIRRC), which operators the Central Landfill in Johnston and manages a statewide plastic bag collection program, are taking a neutral position on Miller’s proposal. Sarah Reeves, RIRRC’s director of public policy, programs and planning, touted the success of a 18-month-old Styrofoam collection program at the Central Landfill.

Michigan-based Dart Container is the largest maker of Styrofoam coffee cups and food containers in the world. The company collects foam cups and foam packing at RIRRC and delivers it to a recycler in Pennsylvania. Dart also makes the ubiquitous Solo beer cup, which is made of rigid polystyrene. RIRRC includes Solo cups in the state recycling stream and both the cups and foam can be converted into products like tape dispensers and the cores for rolls of receipt paper.

Reeves said a voluntary foam drop-off program has been a quiet success, and RIRRC is considering adding collection sites in the state. Reeves referred to Styrofoam as a highly recyclable product. In her testimony, she argued for legislation that places fees on plastic bags, bottles and foam. The money could fund a statewide litter-control and abatement program managed by RIRRC. Bans, Reeves said, are difficult to enforce, manage and monitor, unless they are for highly toxic substances such as mercury.

Miller praised Rhode Island’s single-stream recycling program. But, he said, it hasn’t solved the problem of plastic bags, bottles and foam spoiling Narragansett Bay and scenic areas and cluttering sidewalks and streets.

“The world has not come to an end in communities, countries, cities and towns that have banned plastic bags and/or Styrofoam,” Miller said. “The world won’t come to an end if we do it here.”

California votes on a statewide bag ban in November. The state has 108 bag bans in cities and towns, from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

Efforts to enact a statewide bag ban in Rhode Island have died in committee for four straight years. Barrington is the only municipality in the state with a bag ban.

In 2005, Rhode Island enacted legislation that requires stores with at least 10,000 square feet of space or more than $8 million in sales annually to offer plastic bag collection bins. Each store must also report annually how the bags are collected and transported to a recycling facility. The records are kept by RIRRC.

Eighteen municipalities in Massachusetts have restrictions on plastic bags. Concord passed the first ban on single-use water bottles in 2011. An estimated half-billion water bottles are sold in the United States weekly. Some 2 million tons of plastic water bottles end up in landfills each year.

A Styrofoam ban took effect in 2013 in Brookline, Mass. Foam bans have also passed in Amherst, Great Barrington, Somerville and South Hadley. In 2015, a statewide ban was introduced in the Massachusetts Legislature.

A Washington, D.C., ban on foam started in January. Albany, N.Y., Minneapolis, Oakland, Portland, Ore., San Francisco and Seattle and also prohibit Styrofoam. A foam ban in New York City was overturned in court, after a judge ruled that the city hadn't proven that Styrofoam couldn't be recycled.

One of the main arguments against Styrofoam is that it can’t be recycled. It can, however, be reconstituted into plastic molding and products such as picture frames. Cost-effective collection methods, however, haven't been proven on a large scale in any city, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The bans in Miller’s bill would begin in 2017. The bill was held for further study. Miller said he expects a bag ban bill to be introduced in the House.