Bag Ban and Straw Law Won't Advance Out of House

The Rhode Island House of Representative. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

The Rhode Island House of Representative. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The 2019 session of the General Assembly won’t be remembered as a standout year for environmental bills.

Two days before the expected finish of the 2019 legislative session, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s office said via e-mail that two notable bills, a statewide bag ban (S0410, H5671) and the so-called “straw law” (S0202, H5314) won’t be advancing this year.

Both bills had strong prospects for passing this year, as they were the culmination of a broad-based coalition launched by Gov. Gina Raimondo, called the Task Force to Tackle Plastics.

The Senate already passed each of the bills with little objection from groups that have opposed past bills, such as the American Chemistry Council. Before they were amended, they also bills had support from the Rhode Island Hospitality Association and the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce.

The original version of the bag ban bill also had the endorsement of wholesale bag distributors such as Central Falls-based Packaging & More.

The House and Senate versions of the bag ban bill were amended to remove a mandatory 5-cent fee on paper bags, a provision that was supported by business groups because it provided a revenue source to pay for paper bags, which are more expensive than plastic bags.

The Senate version had a rule added that required a stitched handle for replacement plastic and cloth bags . The rule makes it difficult for retailers to offer plastic bags that are thicker than the standard thin-film plastic shopping bags. This change likely eroded support from retailers.

Some environmental groups advocated for the stitched-handle rule because the 14 municipal bans have the requirement and would lose it if a state bag ban passed.

Both bills were eventually scratched from the agenda for the House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources on the day of their scheduled hearings, June 26.

In an e-mail, Larry Berman, spokesman for Mattiello, wrote “no consensus was reached and the bills will not be further considered this year.”

No other reasoning was offered other than the House didn’t suspend its rules this year, meaning that bills have to be posted for 48 hours prior to a hearing. Therefore there won’t be sufficient time remaining in the session to hold additional hearings.

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, the sponsor of the Senate bill, said he will introduce the bill in the 2020 legislative session.

Jonathan Berard, co-chair of the Plastics Task Force and executive director of Clean Water Action Rhode Island was disappointed when the 5-cent fee was removed but he didn’t publicly denounce the legislation.

“Many people worked hard on this over the last year, so to see it die on the vine is frustrating and disappointing,” Berard said. ”But our plastic pollution problems are not going away and so we will continue to work on statewide programs and policy solutions to address them.”

Several other bills that passed the Senate appear to be suffering the same fate: a bill (S0661) establishing statewide standards for solar-energy development and a controversial bill (S0760) to expand net metering for so-called “community” or “remote” renewable-energy projects.

Gasification A bill opposed by environmentalists was abruptly revived then scuttled. H5448/S0408 advances pyrolysis, the process of turning plastics into fuels and other chemical feedstocks for manufacturing. Also known as gasification, it is often considered a form of incineration and is opposed over health risks caused by emissions. 

The American Chemistry Council supports the bill because it sees gasification as reducing plastics waste while increasing raw materials for manufacturing such as diesel and gasoline blends and feedstocks for industrial lubricants. 

The bill amends the state designation of a gasification plant from a solid waste facility to a manufacturing classification. The House bill was dormant after a hearing in February but was abruptly switched from the Environment and Natural Resources Committee to Finance Committee on June 25 and scheduled for a hearing on June 27. The hearing was postponed. A future hearing would require two days notice and with only two days remaining in the legislative session there is not sufficient time to hold a hearing.