R.I. poised to ban single-use plastic bags at retail checkout

Updated at 9:04 p.m.

RHODE ISLAND IS POISED to ban single-use plastic bags at retailers statewide. A number of municipalities have enacted bag bans already, including Barrington stores such as the Shaw's pictured here. Above, Lucas Flavin bags groceries at Shaw's supermarket in Barrington before the local ban was enacted. The store no longer uses plastic bags. PBN FILE PHOTO/DAVID LEVESQUE

PROVIDENCE – Kate Weymouth, a former Barrington Town Council member, has been waiting for years to see Rhode Island follow her community and finally pass a statewide ban on plastic shopping bags.

The town became the second in New England to do so in 2012.

“This is huge, because there are not many states with a strong plastic bag ban,” Weymouth said as Rhode Island, after years of aborted efforts, was on the verge of banning single-use plastic bags at retailer checkout lines. “And some of those are not as solid as ours is.”

Seventeen cities and towns across the state have implemented some version of a plastic bag ban.

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The state Senate and House are expected to give final approvals to the Plastic Waste Reduction Act this week, sponsored by Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee, D-South Kingstown, and by Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, D-Providence. The bill will then head to the governor’s desk.

Under the legislation, retailers would be prohibited from offering customers single-use or nonrecyclable plastic bags at checkout and are encouraged to provide recyclable alternatives.

“We all know how dangerous plastic pollution is to the health of our oceans and marine life, and how it contributes to climate change,” said Ruggerio. “Several Rhode Island jurisdictions have already enacted similar policies to promote and encourage the use of recyclable bags, and I think it’s appropriate to be consistent throughout the state.”

The House voted 56-7 to pass the Plastic Waste Reduction Act June 17, while the Senate version of the bill was passed by the Senate in 32-4 vote in May. The two chambers must also approve each other’s version of the bill.

“I am the representative from two coastal communities and we have seen firsthand the damage that plastic bags do to our oceans and environment for many years now,” said McEntee in a press release. “Now is the time to end this environmental and public health destruction and finally pass a statewide ban on plastic bags.”

Both bills pose fines for retailers that fail to follow the bag ban, with a $100 charge for the first violation in a calendar year, $200 for the second violation and $500 for the third and following violations.

“Plastic bags are one of the most frequently picked up items at Shoreline cleanups in Rhode Island,” said Jed Thorp, Rhode Island director of Clean Water Action. “Plastic bags are found all throughout the state, not just along the shoreline but rivers, streams, ponds, the forest. It’s a legitimate problem that needs to be addressed.”

At least nine states have enacted similar legislations in recent years, including Connecticut, Maine and New York. New Jersey was the latest state to do so in May 2022. But Rhode Island never succeeded at passing a statewide ban before.

“Retail businesses were still recovering from the pandemic last year and the timing wasn’t right,” said House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi. “I’m proud to support passage this year to enable our state to have one standard regarding plastic bags, and to build on the great momentum we have had in enacting several other pieces of environmental protection legislation.”

In 2019, similar legislation failed to advance out of the House Committee on Environmental and Natural Resources when House members failed to reach a consensus. The bill, which had already passed in the Senate, originally included a 5-cent-fee on paper bags, which was later removed.

In 2020, Ruggerio sponsored yet another plastic bag ban bill, which passed the Senate but was eventually derailed once the pandemic forced the legislative session to end prematurely.

A citywide ban went into effect in Providence in October 2019, prohibiting retailers from offering customers single-use bags. Newport passed a similar ban back in 2017.

But the first town to take charge on the issue was Barrington.

The original language of the town’s ban prohibited retailers from handing out plastic bags thinner than 2.25 mils, but when the industry started producing thicker plastic bags, Weymouth said they had to get creative and find a new solution.

“So we went ahead and amended the definition of a reusable bag as one that was 4 mils thick, and had stitched handles, not heat fused,” Weymouth said.

This is the same language used in the current state legislation, which defines “reusable plastic bags” as bags with stitched handles, with a thickness of at least four millimeters, created for at least 125 uses, and made primarily of “washable cloth, other durable woven or nonwoven fabric, polyester, polypropylene, or other durable plastic.”

But not everybody is on board with the legislation. Zachary Taylor, director of the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance, a lobbying group representing the U.S. plastic bag manufacturing and recycling industry, said that this legislation “misses the mark” on sustainability.

“Despite being framed as a plastic bag ban, this proposal mandates retailers in Rhode Island switch to alternative bags with stitched handles that are still made from plastic, and the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation says they can’t be recycled at the end of their life,” Taylor said.

Chris Parisi, president of the Rhode Island Small Business Coalition, in a statement said, “Small businesses are struggling with rising costs and the single use plastic bag ban adds to this extraordinary problem. Our environment’s health is important but we must weigh these benefits against the economic costs to our consumers and businesses.

We suggested this legislation apply to retail businesses with multiple locations. This [would] send the right message and direction for our environment while limiting the impact on our small businesses.”

For others, this legislation is the culmination of years of advocacy.

“I think Rhode Island’s environment will be cleaner as a result,” Thorp said. “In the communities that do have plastic bag bans and that have had them in effect now for three, four or five years, we have anecdotally seen a reduction in the number of plastic bags that get picked up during cleanups. So the data shows that this has been effective and it’ll have a real benefit here locally.”

This bill, if signed, will take effect within one year from the establishment of regulations by the Department of Environmental Management or on Jan. 1, 2024, whichever comes first. Thorp said that this will give store owners enough time to prepare and adapt. And since similar regulations have been in place locally for years, he said there will be no surprises on how the legislation will play out.

“We have some idea of what implementation of the law will look like and we have some idea of how stores and communities and consumers will adapt,” Thorp said. “And by large, even though you occasionally hear some complaints, it’s gone pretty smoothly.”

The state legislation will supersede all local regulations. The Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns said it was pleased to see the state advocate for plastic waste reduction but shared some concern over the legislation’s power to prevent cities and towns from passing other similar ordinances.

“We believe that local governments should be able to respond to the evolving needs of their communities and pass additional ordinances if they deem them necessary, particularly with regard to definitions and enforcement,” said Jordan Day, policy director of the organization, in a testimony submitted to both the House and Senate committees.

Thorp agreed that they were hoping for cities and towns to have the ability to enact their own stricter legislations. At the same time, he understands the need for this clause.

“It’ll provide uniformity across the state,” Thorp said. “I do think it’s helpful for the retailers, for the store owners, to have some certainty of what the laws are going to be like in different municipalities.”

(ADDS paragraphs 23-24 with comment from Rhode Island Small Business Coalition.)

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