House Version of Bag Ban Criticized for Loophole

Video and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI New staff

PROVIDENCE — The statewide bag ban is cruising ahead despite opposition to a version of the bill in the House of Representatives.

The Senate bill (S0410) passed the full Senate unanimously on June 6. The House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resource approved its bill (H5671) the same day.

The House bill was amended at the hearing to remove a mandatory 5-cent fee on paper bags, a provision that was also removed from the Senate bill. The loss of the fee didn’t diminish support from most environmental groups, which favor the bill because they maintain it reduces one of the most common forms of litter. But the House bill didn’t include language adopted by the Senate that eliminated a loophole allowing for thicker plastic replacement bags.

Four members of the House committee voted against advancing the bill to the floor because it lacked the so-called “stitched-handle” rule. Rep. Raymond Hull, D-North Providence, told ecoRI News that he voted against the bill because it allows retailers to offer thicker plastic bags in place of the standard thin-film bags. Bags with stitched handles tend to be made of cloth or are too expensive to make and give away for free or for 5 or 10 cents.

“If you’re going to really do something, do what’s right or don't do it all,” Hull said.

The legislation in both chambers of the General Assembly outlaws plastic bags with a thickness of up to 4 mils. Anything thicker is considered a reusable bag.

Environmental advocates have been critical of retailers that have recently been offering the thicker bags instead of paper bags, a practice they say simply skirts the intent of the law and keeps creating plastic pollution.

Sixty Rhode Island residents, mostly from Providence, mailed postcards to the House Committee on Environment and Natural Resource urging members to add the stitched-handle rule or reject the bill. They noted that Barrington, the first municipality in Rhode Island to enact a bag ban, had to amend its ordinance in 2015 after local retailers started handing out thicker plastic bags.

Thirteen other Rhode Island municipalities have since approved bag bans, and all have the stitched-handle rule. Environmental groups such as Save The Bay and Clean Ocean Access say local regulations would be nullified if the House bill passes, because the state bill includes language that preempts municipal ordinances.

“Save The Bay is eager to see a strong statewide law regarding plastic bags,” Save The Bay’s director of advocacy, Topher Hamblett, wrote in a letter to the House committee.

Save The Bay and Clean Water Action of Rhode Island were also disappointed that the mandatory 5-cent fee on paper bags was removed from the Senate and House bills, as the fee has proven to be one of the most effective tools to increase the use of reusable bags by shoppers.

All three environmental groups are members of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s Task Force to Tackle Plastics. The committee wrote the bag ban legislation, which initially included the 5-cent fee on paper bags. Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, sponsor of the Senate bill, said he removed the fee because it would burden low-income residents. No reason was given for the removal of the fee from the House bill. The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee, D-Narragansett, didn’t respond to a media inquiry. No testimony expressing opposition to the fee was given orally or submitted in writing to either the House or Senate committee.

No date has been announced for a House vote on its bill. The Senate bill has been sent to the House environment committee for a hearing. At least one of the bills must pass the House and Senate to advance to Raimondo’s desk. If both bills pass both chambers as written, then there must be a reconciliation process to resolve the differences. Reconciliation delays the legislation, increasing the risk it may stall in the General Assembly and fail to pass during the 2019 legislative session, which typically ends in late June.

Rhode Island communities with bag bans (in order of passage): Barrington, Newport, Middletown, New Shoreham, Jamestown, Portsmouth, Warren, Bristol, South Kingstown, North Kingstown, Westerly, Providence, Cranston, and East Providence.