Metro, News

Rhode Island considers bills to reduce plastic pollution

Bills would ban single-use plastic straws, food containers in food service establishments

Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Two bills that aim to increase sustainability and reduce pollution from single-use plastics were heard by the Rhode Island House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources Feb. 6.

The first bill, 2020-H 7163, would prevent food service establishments from providing single-use plastic straws, unless specifically requested by the customer. Bill 2020-H 7164 would prevent establishments from providing either plastic beverage stirrers or polystyrene foam containers.

Both bills are sponsored by Rep. David Bennett, D-Warwick, Cranston, chairman of the House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources. “It’s time that we start moving on (from) single-use plastics. Maine has already done it. New Hampshire’s doing it. … California’s already got it on their laws. And that’s what I’m going to do with Rhode Island,” Bennett said.

Bill 7163 was inspired by the notion that — for most people — straws “are things we can live without,” Bennett said. He hopes that if establishments no longer provide straws automatically or leave them out in dispensers, they will be “out of sight, out of mind.”

One major problem with straws is that “single-use plastic straws are a flimsy, light plastic product, so they easily break down into microplastics and nanoplastics,” said Staff Attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation Kevin Budris. These particles then “end up back in our drinking water and in our soil, even in the food we eat and the air we breathe.” Bennett also cited multiple instances of plastic straws harming marine life, such as turtles and whales.

But plastic straws will continue to be available upon request, as Bennett acknowledges that some people physically need straws in order to comfortably drink. “We’re not going to take (straws) away from people that need straws,” Bennett said. Advocacy Coordinator at Save the Bay Jed Thorp described the bill as “not a ban of straws, but … an ‘ask first’ policy.”

This point is extremely important to Mycala McKay, communications lead for Sunrise Providence. “Instead of just outright banning (straws), they’ve taken steps to ensure that they’ll still be available if requested,” McKay said, “which is really important for people who still need them.”

Bill 7164 would prohibit establishments from processing, preparing, selling or providing food or beverages in disposable containers made from polystyrene foam. Polystyrene is the overarching category of polymers used by trademarked brands such as Styrofoam.

“Polystyrene food containers are a significant waste item,” Budris said. “According to the latest Rhode Island waste characterization, we as a state are putting about 4,000 tons of polystyrene foam into our landfills every single year … and polystyrene is a light material, so this is a lot of foam food containers.” Polystyrene breaks apart into very small particles, which can travel far and easily disperse into waterways, he added.

This bill would also prohibit food service establishments from distributing disposable plastic stirrers.

At the committee hearing Thursday, both Save the Bay and Conservation Law Foundation testified in support of the bills. Additionally, “The American Chemistry Council, which typically fights any kind of legislation to limit plastics, testified … actually in support of the straw bill,” Thorp said.

According to Thorp, the next step in the legislative process is to hold the bills for further study. After the testimonial last night, “hopefully … at some point, maybe next week, maybe a month from now, the committee will put those bills up for consideration,” Thorp said. If the bills are released from committee, they will be voted on by the entire Rhode Island House of Representatives —  and if successful, they will pass on to the Rhode Island State Senate and be signed into law by Governor Gina Raimondo.

Bennett is hopeful about the bills’ passage. Thorp added that “usually if the leadership in the House doesn’t want a bill to pass, they won’t even bring it to a vote in committee.” Since the bill was already considered in committee, “it’s a pretty good sign that it’ll probably pass on the floor as well.”

But nothing is yet guaranteed. According to Thorp, the polystyrene bill may not receive as much support as the straw bill because “there are certainly people in the industries — business owners and the people who own the companies that make the polystyrene containers — who will be talking to the Speaker and the House leadership to try to fight those bills behind closed doors.”

Many are optimistic, but at this stage, it can be difficult to “speak to the chances of passage,” said Budris.  “But … they are important pieces of legislation, and we are hopeful that they’ll pass as written.”

Bennett, McKay, Budris and Thorp all agree that these measures are an important next step in limiting plastic pollution in and around Rhode Island.

Bennett cited new bans on several types of single-use plastics in the town of Barrington, R.I. “Their litter is going down, their trash is going down. The town is saving money on the weight … of the garbage, and the landfills are going to benefit.”

If the bills pass, some food service establishments may have to make packaging changes. For instance, Starbucks on Thayer Street is “working on getting rid of our plastic straws, but we do use them currently,” said Starbucks Shift Supervisor Amanda Gelinas.

For about a year, Starbucks has used some strawless lids upon request, as “a lot of customers prefer this strawless lid anyways because of the plastic.” If these bills were to be signed into law, “I’m sure that we would probably switch to all strawless lids, but … we would probably still keep a stash (of straws) behind the counter or somewhere,” Gelinas said.

Additionally, Blue State Coffee on Thayer switched to strawless lids about a year ago. “We were one of the first companies in the area to adopt these kinds of lids,” said Blue State Coffee General Manager Chelsea Burnett. “Our company mission is to use environmentally sustainable practices, so we really want to connect to that in our cafes.”

Other stores that currently use polystyrene foam packaging and rely on plastic straws would need to make adjustments if these bills are passed. But the goal of these bills is “to educate … not to punish,” Bennett said. “It’s going to be an honor system,” starting with a verbal and a written warning if businesses are not complying, he added. But “if (everybody’s) just ignoring the law, then … the judiciary will impose fines.”

Overall, with these bills, Bennett wants to educate people about the dangers of pollution and the importance of taking care of the environment. He believes that part of his “job is to make (our environment) better than when I got (elected). … (Our) children’s grandchildren should not be smothered in the plastic that we gave them.”

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