Changes to Proposed Straw Law Rile Environmentalists

Bill includes preemption clause that prevents municipalities from passing stricter straw laws

Video and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Senate is likely to pass a so-called “straw law” that aims to cut plastic waste, but the bill isn’t getting much support from the environmental community.

The legislation simply requires a restaurant or other food-service establishment to offer single-use plastic straws upon request. A new version of the bill that includes a provision allowing businesses to offer plastic straws from a self-service dispenser was approved June 5 by the Senate Committee on the Environment and Agriculture. The Senate votes on the bill on June 11.

Environmentalists don’t like the self-service qualifier, because it still makes plastic straws the preferred option for consumers and the eatery.

“The bill before you today has the opposite impact: it permits containers of single-use plastic straws to be out in full view, on bars, counters, at drive-thru windows, and on tables, allowing folks to grab as many straws as they might want,” said Amy Moses of the Conservation Law Foundation in an e-mail to the Senate committee. “This is not a ‘stop-and-think’ behavior change bill.”

Another stipulation of the bill prevents cities and towns from passing stricter plastic straw laws. The preemption clause is seen as a gaping loophole that ensures the proliferation of plastics straws, according to critics.

“A straw bill, if enacted, that would keep lots & lots of single-use plastic straws in the Ocean State,” wrote Moses in a Tweet. “It’s moving backwards on plastics.”

The bill includes a provision that preserves Barrington’s ban on plastic straws, which takes effect July 1. In February, the Barrington Town Council banned disposable food-service items such as plastic straws and polystyrene to-go containers.

Barrington Town Council vice president Kate Weymouth, the sponsor of the town’s plastic ban ordinance, called the preemption clause “specific and dangerous” because it keeps other communities from making similar strides to reduce plastic waste.

Weymouth is a member of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s Task Force to Tackle Plastics. The group’s feature initiative are bills to enact a statewide ban on plastic retail bags. Although less heralded, the group also recommended a “upon request” restriction straw law.

The House version of the straw law bill (H5314) doesn’t include the self-service provision or the preemption clause. The bill was heard Feb. 28. No other hearing has been scheduled. The House bill has broad support from environmental groups and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

The bill is opposed by the Theatre Owners of New England, Cinemaworld, and CW Lanes & Games in Lincoln. They argued that alternative straws aren’t long enough for their large soda cups. If straws aren’t given with the beverage, then moviegoers will suffer the inconvenience of leaving the theater if they forgot to take a straw, they claimed.

According to a report issued by the Task Force to Tackle Plastics, straws, shopping bags, and other single-use plastics account for 75 percent to 80 percent of marine debris in Rhode Island.

In a survey conducted by the Rhode Island Hospitality Association, eliminating plastic straws was the most popular waste-reduction act adopted by local restaurants and hospitality businesses.