Straw Law and Bag Ban Bills Heard at General Assembly

Video and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The battle to reduce plastic waste is heating up at the Statehouse.

First up was a Feb. 28 House hearing on a bill to restrict the use of plastic straws. Although they are a relatively small portion of the waste stream, plastic straws are a persistent nuisance. They are made from polluting fossil fuels, they can’t be recycled, and Americans use some 500 million each day. Many don’t make it to the landfill and instead show up in waterways as everyday litter. Plastic straws are the seventh-most collected item at beach cleanups, according to the Ocean Conservancy.

Rather than a ban, H5314 simply requires food establishments to provide plastic straws upon request. Straws made of materials such as paper, pasta, sugarcane, wood, or bamboo can still be given out automatically with a beverage.

The Skip the Straw movement, led by Clean Ocean Access in Rhode Island, and new “straw laws” are gaining momentum, as coastal communities move away from single-use plastics and try to curtail plastic waste from eateries and coffee shops. California led the way, passing an “Ask-First” law in 2018. Seven other states, including Rhode Island, have introduced similar legislation.

“We have to start reducing the amount of plastics we bring in to our environment,” Rep. David Bennett, D-Warwick, said at the House hearing. “And this is a good way to start. It’s a small step.”

Johnathan Berard of Rhode Island Clean Water Action handed out samples of water taken from Narragansett Bay containing microplastics. He noted that asking consumers to ask for a straw not only reduces waste but also forces them to think about the environmental impact of their choices.

The bill is supported by the Conservation Law Foundation, Audubon Society of Rhode Island, the Environment Council of Rhode Island, Save The Bay, and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management DEM).

The bill is opposed by the Theatre Owners of New England, a consortium of member cinemas.

Dino Pacelli, director of product development at the 16-screen Cinemaworld and CW Lanes & Games in Lincoln, said non-plastic straws aren’t long enough and durable enough for the big fountain drinks preferred by moviegoers. It’s also an inconvenience for customers to leave the theater and return to the concession stand if they forget to ask for a straw.

Pacelli said he’s tried some 30 non-plastic straws and the sippy-cup tops being adopted by Starbucks.

“Currently, there is just not an option for us that we are able to find,” he said.

The Rhode Island Hospitality Association wants to amend the bill and has endorsed a voluntary Ask-First campaign.

The bill was held for further study. The Senate version of the bill (S202) has a hearing scheduled for March 6.

Statewide bag ban
Two bills that would enact a statewide ban on plastic retail bags are also scheduled be heard at the March 6 Senate committee hearing.

S202, sponsored by Sen. Josh Miller, D-Cranston, includes a ban on polystyrene foam containers such as cups and takeout containers. It also allows retailers to assess a fee of up to 25 cents on a paper bag.

S410, written by DEM, is the culmination of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s Task Force to Tackle Plastics. The legislation only bans single-use plastic bags used by retailers and restaurants.

The ban exempts plastic bags used for produce, meat and frozen food, bakery items, flowers, newspapers, door-hanger solicitations, dry cleaning, and goldfish. Farmers markets, yard sales, festivals, and religious events are exempt from the bag ban.

One item likely to be contested is the mandatory 5-cent fee on paper bags. A 10-cent fee killed a bag ban in Providence after groups protested the financial burden the fee imposes on low-income shoppers.

However, many environmental advocates say a fee is necessary to shift consumer behavior from single-use to reusable bags.

“A plastic bag bill that does not include a fee on paper, however, encourages shoppers to take a free paper bag when checking out, resulting in a shifting of the pollution problem instead of incentivizing the best alternative to single-use plastic bags, which are reusable bags,” according to the Surfrider Foundation.

So far, California and Hawaii have statewide bans on plastic bags. Eleven municipalities in Rhode Island have enacted bag bans. None have a mandatory fee.

DEM’s bill will supersede all existing municipal bag bans and “ordinances in this field.” Thus, it’s not clear how the law will impact Barrington’s recent ban on foam and other plastic packaging.

Each city and town would be responsible for enforcement of the bag ban. A first violation is a $100 fine. A third violation within a year receives a $500 fine.

The ban would commence one year after the bill is passed.