By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — The Task Force to Tackle Plastics has so far focused on removing single-use plastics, such as bags, straws, and foam containers, from the state’s waste stream. Nuisance plastic items that can’t be taken out of circulation, such as plastic bottles, will be tackled through new or improved recycling and education programs, perhaps through something like a bottle-deposit law.
The likely initial recommendation from the task force is advocating for a bill that bans single-use plastics bags across Rhode Island, with a 5-cent fee on paper bags. Businesses would be allowed to collect and keep the fee. No businesses would be exempt from the ban. The bill will likely require that the statewide ban supersede Rhode Island's 10 existing municipal bans. A plan to enforce the ban has yet to be decided, nor has it been settled if the fee will be mandatory.
“The idea is to change behavior and switching to more reusable products,” Jonathan Berard, co-chair of the task force, said at the group’s Jan. 9 meeting.
The 22-member committee created through an executive order by Gov. Gina Raimondo last July includes municipal, education, business, and community leaders, but consensus on the upcoming legislation was questioned.
Lucy Rios, of the Providence Racial and Environmental Justice Committee and a member of the task force’s legislative subcommittee, said environmental justice communities need to be better represented in the decision-making.
“I don’t want to see my name attached to a recommendation that I don’t fully support,” she said. “And I don’t want to be up at the Statehouse testifying against something that I was actively involved in developing.”
The Racial and Environmental Justice Committee derailed a bag ban in Providence last year over the ban’s mandatory fee on paper bags.
Amy Moses of the Conservation Law Foundation said a statewide bag ban shouldn’t prevent cities and towns from enacting other bans on plastics, such as polystyrene. Other members didn’t want the state ban to be weaker than existing municipal bans.
Task force meetings have drawn strong interest from individuals and groups not on the committee.
Clint Richmond of the Massachusetts Sierra Club urged the committee to consider broadening any bag ban to include polystyrene and produce bags, which are exempt from most municipal bans. Richmond said Massachusetts has 90 municipal bag bans, including five that ban produce bags, and the state is considering its own statewide ban on plastic bags and reforms to make packaging easier to recycle.
“We share the common ocean here in New England,” he said. “Our waste is intermingled and we need to tackle this problem together.”
Chris Nothnagle, senior director of marketing for Toray Plastics in North Kingstown, said he supports a statewide bag ban but wanted the committee to recognize the unintended consequences, such as the larger carbon footprint of paper bags and the higher costs of alternative bags for smaller businesses.
Laws on the books
Many existing regulations are simply overlooked and not enforced, such as the requirement that most retailers who offer plastic bags must also make paper bags available to customers. All retailers, including restaurants and convenience stores, are required to recycle their cardboard, plastics, and paper and offer recycling bins for their customers.
“Right now there is no enforcement,” said Terrance Gray of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM).
Gray noted that a staffing shortage requires DEM to only inspect landfills, transfer stations, and compost facilities, “because if something goes wrongs at those facilities it effects a lot of people.”
He said DEM is working with the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation to improve oversight of recycling rules.
Victor Bell, a packaging consultant who helped write the state’s recycling regulations when he worked DEM, said a litter tax enacted in the 1980s on food and beverage businesses funded enforcement operations but enforcement slowed after the tax revenue was shifted to Rhode Island’s general operating fund.
Leah Bamberger, director of sustainability for Providence, suggested a third-party audit of the laws and regulations showing which rules are enforced or ignored.
“So at least we have some clarity on where we are, so we know where we can allocate more resources,” she said.
Dale Venturini, president of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association and co-chair of the task force, warned of a “fairness issue” and urged the committee not to recommend rules that single out any one industry.
“Only certain people are being targeted and others aren’t,” she said.
Time is short
The task force’s four working groups must complete their reports by Feb. 1. On Feb. 14, the main task force is scheduled hold a public discussion of a draft report that includes the findings. A final report is expected to be sent to Raimondo by Feb. 18. The task force hasn’t set meeting dates beyond the deadline, but the group expects to write additional short- and long-term goals to reduce plastic waste.
“This work needs to continue beyond the deadlines set in the executive order,” Berard said.
Best practices: Inspired by the successful waste-management efforts at events such as the Volvo Ocean Race in Newport and the CVS Charity Classic golf tournament, the final report will include waste-management and recycling guidance for events and offices.
Worth watching. Bell, founder of Environmental Packaging International in Jamestown, who is scheduled to give a compelling — and apparently sobering — presentation on the global waste problem on Jan. 17. Keith Christman, managing director of plastics markets for the American Chemistry Council, will also present. The meeting is at DEM headquarters, 235 Promenade St. in Providence, Room 300, at 1 p.m.