Local legislators and environmental advocates said they’re hopeful a bill to largely ban the use of plastic bags by retailers will pass the General Assembly this year.
Last week, State Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee joined Senate President Dominick Ruggerio to introduce the Plastic Waste Reduction Act.
The bill would prohibit retailers from making available any single-use plastic checkout bag — such as those typically found at grocery stores — and would require that any paper bags made available be recyclable, with an exception for paper carry-out bags at restaurants.
The bills were referred to the Senate Committee on the Environment and Agriculture and the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee.
McEntee’s House bill was co-sponsored by Rep. Robert E. Craven (D-Dist. 32, North Kingstown).
Other co-sponsors come from several of Rhode Island’s coastal communities, as well as Cranston, Providence, Warwick, Woonsocket and Cumberland.
McEntee said the two coastal communities she represents have seen firsthand the damage that plastic bags do to oceans and the environment for many years.
“In Rhode Island, we throw away approximately 26,000 tons of plastic bags and plastic film every year. When you think about how little plastic bags weigh, this is a staggering amount of waste that needs to be eliminated in our state,” she said. “Plastics litter our parks, clog our rivers and oceans and choke our wildlife. These particles end up in our soil, in our drinking water, in the food we eat and in the air we breathe. Now is the time to end this environmental and public health destruction and finally pass a statewide ban on plastic bags.”
The bills are 2021-S 0037 and 2021-H 5358. If passed and signed into law, they would take effect on Jan. 1, 2023. The Senate passed a bag ban bill last year, but the House did not.
As for penalties, the municipalities would be in charge. Fines would be $100 for a first offense, $200 for a second and $500 for third and subsequent violations.
While no Republicans signed on to the bill, the local business community is cautiously eying the move. In North Kingstown and South Kingstown, they’ve already had to adjust to local ordinances that ban single-use plastic bags. The ordinances in both towns took effect Jan. 1, 2019.
“It was crucial at that time, and it still is, that businesses have a chance to respond,” said Joe Viele, executive director of the Southern R.I. Chamber of Commerce. Viele was a town councilor when South Kingstown passed its ordinance.
“Frankly, especially during COVID, businesses might not even know this is happening,” he said. “I think that as long as the retailers have some input before the legislation is considered, that’s OK. We have communicated it to our membership but haven’t gotten a lot of feedback yet. Certainly in this economy, we don’t want to hurt retailers more.”
South Kingstown’s ordinance states that for a first offense, a business charged with violating the ban will be served a warning letter. The establishment will be given 28 days to correct the violation. The penalty to the second offense will be $250, to be paid within 14 days.
It does not cover barrier bags used for vegetables or barrier bags for a meat product.
Before adopting it, the town’s Economic Development Committee surveyed 32 businesses and there was overwhelming support for the ordinance. Three of the businesses were opposed, one due to “personal philosophy” and the other two out of concern for the financial impacts.
North Kingstown’s ordinance also has several exceptions. Laundry dry cleaning bags, pharmacy prescription bags and pet waste bags are among permissible plastic bags. The first offense warrants a warning, while subsequent offenses carry increasingly hefty fines.
Town Manager Ralph Mollis said that in crafting its ordinance, the Town Council was also concerned with any effect on local business. Mollis said the feedback has been positive, with just a couple of businesses raising legitimate concerns over having to change infrastructure to accommodate reusable bags. Those businesses were allowed to get waivers and more time to comply, he said.
Narragansett doesn’t have an ordinance prohibiting single-use plastic bags, although the town’s Conservation Commission has studied the issue and was working on a proposed ordinance early last year before COVID to recommend to the Town Council.
Sen. V. Susan Sosnowski (D-Dist. 37, South Kingstown, New Shoreham), who co-sponsored the Senate bill, said her farm business in West Kingston has switched to paper bags. Most businesses in North and South Kingstown have adjusted because of the local ordinances, she said.
“I think it’s really important for this to pass and be statewide, if we’re going to have less plastic end up not only in the waste stream, but in the water,” she said. And businesses have already started making changes – she noticed at Stop & Shop that the deli is using compostable bags to pack meat.
“I was thrilled to see that,” she said.
State Sen. Alana DiMario (D-Dist 36, North Kingstown, Narragansett) is vice-chairperson of the Committee on Environment and Agriculture.
“The thing about this bill for me is that it’s supported by a lot of municipal action,” she said. “A lot of cities and towns have already decided at the local level to make this change.”
The legislation is also supported by environmental groups, including the Conservation Law Foundation.