Video and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — A key provision was removed and another added as a bill to ban plastic retail bags advanced to the Senate floor for a vote on June 6.
After hearing from fellow senators over the weekend, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, D-North Providence, stripped a mandatory 5-cent fee on paper bags from his bill (S410), the Plastic Waste Reduction Act.
“I think it harms low-income people,” Ruggerio said. “I just don’t think it’s necessary.”
The change goes against the recommendation of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s Task Force to Tackle Plastics, whose 22 members, including representatives from environmental justice groups, approved the fee. The committee’s final report included establishing a program for giving free bags to low-income households.
Jonathan Berard, Rhode Island state director for Clean Water Action and co-chair of the Task Force to Tackle Plastics, called the fee a “key element” of the bill because it prods consumers to bring reusable shopping bags to the store, instead of simply accepting paper bags offered by the retailer.
Berard noted that a mandatory fee resulted in a 70 percent reduction in disposable bag use after Washington, D.C., enacted a bag ban in 2010. The D.C. ban also offers free reusable bags to seniors and low-income residents.
“Requiring a customer to make a choice about whether or not to pay for a paper bag is the critical piece in changing customer behavior,” Berard told ecoRI News prior to the May 29 Senate hearing. “We want to incentivize people to switch not from plastic to paper but from disposable to reusable.”
None of Rhode Island’s 14 municipal bag bans include a fee. Berard sees the omission as simply giving shoppers a different type of disposable bag — one, he said, that has a greater carbon footprint than most plastic bags.
Many proponents of the statewide legislation, however, didn’t object to cutting the required fee.
“The removal of the fee for paper bags was a surprise and not something we felt strongly about, though we know that fees on paper bags is an effective strategy for changing people’s habits,” said Kate Weymouth, a member of the Task Force to Tackle Plastics and a force behind Barrington’s bag ban, the first in the state.
She noted that some stores promote reusable-bag use by offering a 5-cent discount per reusable bags used, which Weymouth called a “friendlier incentive for the customer.”
Dave McLaughlin, executive director of Middletown-based Clean Ocean Access and a task force member, said he prefers a flat fee on paper bags that is collected by the state and used for eduction or enforcement. The proposed fee, however, sends the funds to the retailer, which typically benefits larger retailers that make their own paper bags at a cost less than the 5-cent fee. He noted smaller stores pay as much as 16 cents per bag.
Ruggerio also included a provision in the bill that required reusable plastic bags to have stitched handles. The stitching prevents retailers from circumventing the ban on traditional thin-film bags by giving away thicker plastic bags. Bags with stitched handles are typically too expensive to give away.
The regulation also aligns the proposed legislation with the 14 municipal ordinances, all of which have the stitched-handle provision. At the moment, at least, the requirement removes the fear that a weaker state law, with its preemption clause, will nullify stronger local bans.
The Senate Committee on Agriculture and the Environment unanimously agreed the move bill to the full Senate. No date for the Senate vote has been announced.
The House version of the bill (H5671) still contains the 5-cent fee and lacks the stitched-handle rule. After a hearing on March 21, the House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources votes on the bill on June 6.
A bill (S202) requiring restaurants to only offer plastic straws upon request was scheduled for a committee vote but was held for further study. Critics of the bill worried that an initial preemption clause would make it difficult for cities and towns to enact bans and restrictions on other polluting plastics such s polystyrene cups and packaging. But the legislation was amended to make the preemption specific to straws.
The original bill, Weymouth said, “would have passed easily, so not sure where that (amendment) came from.”
In February, Barrington passed a ban on single-use plastics and straws.