Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Several opponents of a statewide ban on plastic retail bags are now backing, or at least remaining silent on the issue, legislation to make the ban a reality.
In previous years, the Rhode Island Hospitality Association (RIHA), the Rhode Island Food Dealers Association, and the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce were staunch critics of plastic bag prohibitions. The business groups had argued the virtues of plastic bags, such as their low cost, light weight, durability, and versatility. They railed against what they deemed overregulation by the state and the burden on retailers.
The RIHA said it had a change of heart, in part, because of the 11 cities and towns that have passed municipal bans. Although the bans are similar if not identical in each community, RIHA wrote in a letter that “businesses have been left scrambling to implement a patchwork of laws, all of which have different requirements.”
At a March 6 Senate hearing, business groups praised Gov. Gina Raimondo for inviting them to join the Task Force to Tackle Plastics. RIHA’s president and CEO Dale Venturini served as the task force’s co-chair.
“As soon as the business community was engaged, we came to the table in good faith and now we have a bill in front of us that pretty much every major business association is in support of,” said Sarah Brakto, RIHA’s legislative liaison.
One of the most persistent opponents of a statewide bag ban had been Tony Fonseca, co-owner of the food packaging distribution company Packaging & More Inc. of Central Falls. Fonseca also served on the plastics task force and applauded the 22-member committee for its diversity.
He was swayed by a latest bag ban bill (S410) because it includes a mandatory 5-cent fee on paper bags. The fee, he said, will improve the environmental benefits by encouraging shoppers to use reusable bags instead of paper bags, which have their own environmental drawbacks.
“I want (the fee) to be there to change consumer behavior,” Fonseca said.
He also liked that the fee goes to the retailer, allowing them to recoup the higher costs for paper bags.
The American Chemistry Council (ACC) didn’t support the bill, but didn’t object either. The ACC, which represents the largest fossil-fuel and chemical companies in the world, has fought bans on plastics and chemicals in Rhode Island and across the country. Its lobbyists also pushed for preemption laws that prevent municipal bans.
The ACC did speak against a similar bill (S268) that includes a ban on polystyrene foam containers.
Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, D-North Providence, sponsored the stand-alone bag ban bill at the request of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.
There was only one objection to the mandatory 5-cent fee, which killed a Providence bag ban in 2018. The American Forest & Paper Association submitted a letter saying the fee wrongly penalizes paper bags — “a commodity that is recyclable, compostable, made of recycled material, and reusable.”
Several reusable bag supporters, including Raimondo, want to start a program to issue reusable bags to low-income residents.
“I will commit to implement a State-led program to distribute reusable bags to Rhode Islanders — with a focus on vulnerable populations — prior to a prohibition going into effect,” Raimondo wrote in a letter to the Senate committee.
If approved, the bag ban begins Jan. 1, 2021, or a year from passage.
Environmental groups uniformly backed the bill. A few asked that the definition of reusable bags include stitched handles, so that thicker plastic bags aren’t offered by retailers.
The bill was held for further study. A House version of the bill has yet to have a hearing.