By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — A bill proposing a statewide ban on plastic bags is the likely outcome of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s plastic waste commission, but it isn’t necessarily the result preferred by environmentalists and businesses.
Aside from opponents of the ban — a bag distributor and an American Chemistry Council representative spoke against it — there were calls for substantive reform to waste and pollution in the state at the Dec. 14 meeting of Task Force to Tackle Plastics.
Jonathan Stone, executive director of Save The Bay, called it “a gross omission" if the commission’s final report doesn’t address stormwater.
He said any solution to reduce plastic waste should include incentives coupled with increased enforcement of the federal Clean Water Act to address stormwater runoff, preferably through regional entities to manage and finance stormwater projects, known as a stormwater utility.
“Stormwater delivers everything — waste of any kind, including toxins — into the bay and rivers and streams,” Stone said.
Curt Spalding, former director of the New England office for the Environmental Protection Agency, doesn’t want the report to just be a single “transaction” and instead prefers a long-term strategy that includes working with neighboring states.
“I don’t get any sense from this that people are interested in a strategy,” Spalding said, referring to the governor’s appointees who are facilitating the task force.
Spalding noted that the United States is way behind other countries that address the life cycle of plastic packaging through incentives and regulations.
Other members of the task force remarked that there is no data or study of the economic costs and other impacts of plastic pollution in Rhode Island.
“We can ban plastic bags, and it’s not going to solve the plastics problem in the ocean,” Spalding said.
“No, but it’s what’s doable today,” said Sen. Josh Miller, D-Cranston, a task force member and sponsor of many of the failed statewide bag ban bills.
Miller noted that legislation is a starting point that should lead to other initiatives.
There was other pushback against criticism of a statewide bag ban. Janet Coit, director of the Rhode Island Department of Environment Management, and Raimondo’s deputy chief of staff, Rosemary Powers, reminded the 22-member commission that they only have until Feb. 18 to offer legislation that reflects the consensus of the group.
“There are all sorts of ideas, but focusing on a statewide plastic bag ban is something we might be able to bring in with support from people who have technically testified against it,” Coit said. “Because we have a bill that takes business interests into account. If we could get that done, it would really be something to be proud of.”
Powers said she is expecting two or more bills from the task force, while noting that other initiatives will also be moving forward. She didn’t say if those initiatives would be done through the task force or independently.
Raimondo has plenty of political cover for a statewide bag ban. Although legislation has been defeated in the General Assembly every year for nearly a decade, municipal bag bans are sweeping the state. Since Barrington enacted a ban in 2013, 10 Rhode Island communities have passed similar bans on retail plastic bags. Boston started a high-profile ban on Dec. 14.
The launch of Boston’s bag ban prompted the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) to advocate for a ban on plastic bags across New England.
At the recent task force meeting, Kirstie Pecci, director of the zero waste program at CLF, said Raimondo called for innovate solutions when she announced the task force in July and therefor the legislation should include a ban on polystyrene, as well as a provision that restaurants only provide plastic straws upon request.
Pecci advocated for a bottle-deposit law and other consumer incentives that encourage manufactures to use sustainable packaging and take back products that no longer work, a concept known as producer responsibility.
“We need to make sure we take care of (pollution) at the source or we are never going to solve this problem,” she said.
CLF has three goals relating to plastic waste: ban items that aren’t recyclable; increase recycling to 100 percent; and shift the costs and clean up from cities, towns, and states to manufacturers.
Amy Moses, director of CLF in Rhode Island, said taking care of the environment is paramount.
“I think it’s important that we take a step back and realize that plastic comes from fossil fuels. And while they may be cheap — you can buy a case of water bottles for a few bucks — we’re not paying for the true cost of that plastic,” Moses said. “We’re not paying for that pollution when we buy the little bit of plastic in the water bottle. And this plastic is everywhere degrading all of our environment. And the fossils fuels these products are derived from are literally destroying our planet. So I don't think we can focus on the narrow little dollars and cents because there are so many externalities and problems with plastics that are not captured in the prices that you’re paying.”
Business representatives at the meeting, such as Chris Nothnagle, senior director of marketing for Toray Plastics, were inclined to support improving current recycling programs and expanding public education. Toray manufactures a variety of plastic films for flexible and rigid packaging at its plant in North Kingstown.
Nothnagle said businesses need incentives to use sustainable packaging, otherwise they will buy the least expensive product, which is usually made of plastic.
“There’s an enormous opportunity to knock this problem way, way, way down with existing infrastructure,” he said.
Recycling is the law
Sen. Miller, a restaurant owner, wasn’t sure if businesses are aware of the state’s recycling laws. Every business in Rhode Island, including food establishments, are required to recycle, but there is no enforcement. As of 2014, Rhode Island had only one employee dedicated to commercial recycling.
Unlike Massachusetts, Rhode Island doesn’t inspect waste at landfills to find and fine businesses and municipalities that are throwing away recyclables.
The commission’s final report will reflect the top ideas from four subcommittees. It will also include any dissenting views and recommendations for near- and long-term goals. Each group will meet two or three times before the Feb. 14 deadline.
At the full task force meeting on Dec. 14 each group presented its findings to date.
The Lead By Example subcommittee is considering energizing and expanding DEM’s idle Rhode Island Hospitality Green Certification for the Hospitality & Tourism Industry. The group will also send out a survey to the public to gather best practices.
Save The Bay’s Stone urged boosting local stewardship groups, such as neighborhood associations, to work with businesses to monitor waste and implement new clean-up programs.
The Legislative Solutions subcommittee is focused on passing a bag ban bill and whether a fee on alternative bags would be assessed. The group meets Jan. 7.
The Education subcommittee, led by Dave McLaughlin of Clean Ocean Access, is considering a campaign to reduce plastics at restaurants, an educational program for grades K-12, and re-starting the famed Woodsy Owl campaign from the 1970s and ’80s, with its slogan “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute!”
Dale Venturi, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association, didn’t like the idea of focusing on the restaurant industry.
“I don’t want it to just be one industry, because that makes me a little uncomfortable, sitting here as the chair (of the Hospitality Association),” Venturi said. “We’re not coming out of this just being focused on our industry.”
The Innovation Committee suggested reconsidering a statewide bottle-deposit law, as Rhode Island is the only state in New England without one. Dennis Nixon suggested mimicking other bag bans, such as the Boston ban. He suggested organizing a local design competition for sustainable packaging. The group also wants support for a fiberglass boat recycling program.
The Task Force to Tackle Plastic is scheduled to meet next on Jan. 9 at DEM headquarters, 235 Promenade St., Room 300, from 11 a.m - 12:30 p.m.