By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Unlike the House hearing the previous week, there was considerable pushback against a statewide ban on plastic bags during an April 2 Senate hearing — most of it from one person.
Sen. Stephen Archambault, D-Smithfield, a self-described “Reagan Democrat” and “skunk at the lawn party,” invoked the argument that the bag ban legislation (S2314) is bad for business.
“When we talk about steps that could phase out an entire small-business industry, we need to respect that,” he said.
Archambault engaged in a heated back-and-forth with local environmentalist Greg Gerritt, who said simple, clear regulations help businesses and spur innovation. “If you have regulations that are very convoluted, yes, it can be a headache. But when businesses are regulated with very straight and simple regulations, like a ban on plastic bags, the finding is they actually do better," Gerritt said.
“I think it’s arguments like that that are so logically unsound that I can’t even begin to entertain them,” Archambault replied.
Archambault preferred an education campaign to improve the recycling rate of plastics bags. He’s didn’t offer suggestions on how to pay for such a program.
“If we can all learn and adapt, is there an intermediate step on recycling, short of banning plastic bags and wiping out a whole industry that people can learn?” he said.
Antonio Fonseca, owner of bag wholesaler Packaging & More in Central Falls, said plastic bag sales account for 10 percent of his business. If plastic checkout bags are banned, his business would need bigger trucks, better-trained drivers and more storage space to stock paper bags.
Plastic bags have been in use since 1972. A 2009 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study estimated that 6.1 percent of plastic bags are recycled in the United States. Rhode Island doesn't track its plastic bag recycling rate.
Most of the hearing's speakers expounded on the environmental benefits, noting that plastic bags have become a blight on the state, clogging storm drains, polluting streets and harming wildlife. Dave McLaughlin of Clean Ocean Access, an environmental advocacy group and organizer of cleanups, said businesses will adapt and reinvent alternatives to plastic bags. “You can guarantee businesses will do that," he said.
Officials from two communities with bag bans, Brookline, Mass., and Westport, Conn., also testified in favor of the ban.
Rhode Island farmer Diana Kushner said shoppers at farmers markets are bringing reusable bags more often. She also said she expects to pay her bag supplier for paper bags if plastic bags are banned. “I’m still going to give a lot of business to my ... bag company," she said.
Sarah Kite, director of recycling services for the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC), delivered a mixed stance on the ban. She said there are too many plastic bags in the environment and they clog the recycling equipment and trucks. “From an operational standpoint, we would very much like to see fewer bags in the environment," she said.
But plastic bag recycling, she said, is a valuable revenue stream for RIRRC, which manages the Central Landfill in Johnston. Stores required to offer plastic bag collection bins are complying, Kite said. She said RIRRC is taking bids for a waste composition study that will reveal how many plastic bags go into the landfill without being used a second time.
Sen. Frank Lombardo, D-Johnston, the sponsor of the bill, said the ban is another piece of the puzzle to help the environment heal. “Simply put, our planet is sick,” he said.
Trash and recycling collection
An innovative approach to boosting recycling rates is a bill (S2434) requiring commercial trash collection companies to offer recycling and keep records of the types of solid waste collected.
“It doesn’t do anything for us,” said Steve Changaris of the National Waste and Recycling Association, noting that the legislation would be a burden on small waste haulers.
Jamie Rhodes of Clean Water Action Rhode Island said the legislation is intended to enforce the 18-year-old regulation that all businesses in Rhode Island recycle.
RIRRC Executive Director Michael OConnell spoke in favor of a bill (S2437) that would allow the Central Landfill to include incinerators in its long-term plan. He said the landfill is expected to run out of space by 2038.
Several opponents referred to a $300 million incinerator in Harrisburg, Penn., that drove the city into bankruptcy.
Steve Mutter, a former member of the state solid waste management board, said incinerators, also called waste-to-energy facilities, are expensive but are getting safer. They should be included in the state’s long-term plan, he said. “There will be a time when we have a waste-to-energy facility in Rhode Island and everywhere else in the United States," he said.
All three bills were held for further study.