R.I. Bag Ban and Straw Law Remain in Statehouse Play

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — With less than a week before the tentative end of the 2019 legislative session, a few environmental bills are advancing.

The most significant is the statewide ban on plastic retail bags. The Senate bill (S0410) has a hearing in the House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources scheduled for June 26 at 3:45 p.m.

The Senate version of the bill is preferred by environmental advocates, because it includes a provision that makes it difficult for retailers to substitute traditional thin-film plastic bags, which will be banned, with thicker plastics bags. The so-called “stitched-handle” provision requires that a reusable bag have a handle that is sewn rather than a handle that is part of the bag or heat-fused to the top. Stitched handles are more common on cloth and durable plastic bags, making them more expensive and less likely to be given away by retailers or sold for a nominal fee. Several retailers have started bagging groceries in plastics bags that are thicker than the 4-millimeter thickness requirement, prompting concern from environmental groups that fear they will be used once a state ban takes effect.

The House version of the bill (H5671) doesn’t include the stitched-handle rule, prompting several members of the House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources to oppose it. The bill, however, passed out of committee to the House floor on June 6. The bill has yet to be scheduled for a vote by the full House.

The Senate bill was passed by the full Senate and sent to the House committee on June  7.

Both bills require that state law supersede municipal ordinances, a provision that displeases some environmentalists but not enough to oppose the bills. So far, 14 cities and towns in Rhode Island have adopted bag bans, and all have the stitched-handle rule. None have a required fee on paper bags. A mandatory 5-cent fee on paper bags was removed from the House and Senate bills after concern about the cost for low-income shoppers.

Straw law
The House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources is also expected to vote on competing visions of bills that require food establishments to only offer plastic straws if requested by customers.

Environmentalists prefer the House bill (H5314) because it doesn’t allow eateries to offer plastic straws in self-service dispensers. The Senate version (S202) does allow the use of self-service dispensers for plastic straws and also includes a preemption clause that wouldn’t permit cities and towns to pass stricter versions of the law.

“The current version of the [Senate] bill moves us backwards and may mean more demand for single-use plastic straws, more pollution generated by the manufacturing of plastic straws from fossil fuels, and more single-use plastic straws in our landfill, in our bay, and harming our wildlife,” wrote Amy Moses, director of the Conservation Law Foundation’s Rhode Island office, in a letter to Sen. Susan Sosnowski, D-South Kingstown, chair of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Agriculture.

Invasive plants
The Senate Committee on the Environment and Agriculture is expected to hear a bill (S0411) that prohibits the importing, transporting, and selling of invasive plants. The bill is stripped down from the original bill heard on April 11.