Proposed Rhode Island ban on plastic retail bags has mandatory 5-cent fee on paper bags, but no fee on thicker plastic bags
By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
Environmental groups and supporters of a statewide plastic bag ban are having second thoughts about the legislation being considered by the General Assembly.
Some members of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s Task Force to Tackle Plastics who approved of the committee’s proposed statewide bag law are making public pleas to change the bill so that it excludes thicker plastic retail bags.
Dave McLaughlin, executive director of Middletown-based Clean Ocean Access (COA) and a member of the task force, said he expects an “up-swelling of opposition” unless flaws in the Senate and House bills (S0410 and H5671) are corrected.
McLaughlin said the drawbacks include a uniformity clause that preempts and therefore nullifies the 12 existing municipal bag bans. The provision prevents cities and towns from enforcing current rules, such as those that prohibit retailers from offering thicker plastic bags, often marketed as reusable bags, as replacements for the standard “thin-film” plastic bag.
The second flaw in the state legislation relates to the mandatory fee on paper bags. To the chagrin of environmentalists, none of the municipal bag bans impose a fee on paper and other alternative plastic bags. Fees, they say, lead to greater use of reusable bags. The statewide ban has a mandatory 5-cent fee on paper bags, but there is no fee on thicker plastic bags.
“If the bill passes as is, these thick plastic bags would be provided for free, with a mandatory 5-cent fee only for paper bags,” McLaughlin said. “This means that plastic bags will flood our environment, which is not the intent of the law.”
In fact, Barrington, the first Rhode Island municipality to pass a bag ban, in 2012, had to amend its ordinance in 2015 after the local CVS and Shaw’s began offering shoppers the thicker plastic bags.
Task Force member and Barrington Town Council vice president Kate Weymouth led the effort to revise the Barrington ordinance, by requiring reusable bags to have stitched handles, something that can’t be done with a plastic bag. Weymouth and McLaughlin championed the provision as they advocated for other bag bans across Rhode Island and they, along with the Conservation Law Foundation, are sounding the alarm about the omission in the statewide bag ban bills.
“The biggest horror for those of us who have worked to help pass 10, soon to be 12 uniform and consistent bag bans in Rhode Island,” Weymouth said, “is that if (the state ban is) passed with the ‘uniformity’ clause included, those thicker plastic bags we worked hard to keep out of town with our amendment, will be reintroduced and will be free, as opposed to the proposed 5-cent fee on paper bags.”
McLaughlin noted that some 500,000 residents whose communities regulate plastic bags are at risk of having them circumvented. He is urging supporters to e-mail letters of opposition to the bills’ sponsors in the House and Senate.
Any move to amend the legislation, however, will likely come from Raimondo, as her staff and the plastics task force leaders crafted the bills. McLaughlin said the governor’s representatives told him they don’t intend to change the legislation and praised the stakeholder process that drew support from business groups and led to the 5-cent fee on paper bags.
In a letter to Raimondo, McLaughlin wrote her support for the legislation contradicts her recent commitment to the Clean Seas Pledge, a promise to reduce plastic pollution for the upcoming Volvo Ocean Race summit in Newport.
“I have tried to work with various people to amend the bills, so they achieve the desired outcomes, but this effort has not worked,” McLaughlin wrote in the letter. “I took an oath to serve the Ocean State, and I am doing my job by asking you to stop these bills as written.”
The House bill had a hearing March 21. The Senate bill had a hearing March 6. No dates have been announced for second hearings or committee votes.