Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo is endorsing a plastic bag ban in the state, and says she wants to use her office to drive a broader look at single-use plastics and other disposables.
Raimondo, a Democrat, said she will lead a legislative push for the plastic bag ban, which would include a nickel fee on paper bags and government efforts to distribute reusable bags. Her administration Feb. 14 released a report from its Task Force to Tackle Plastics that aims to take a wide-ranging look at plastic waste.
She also made clear, in comments to the task force during its Feb. 14 meeting, that the bag ban was just the beginning.
Raimondo said she planned executive actions focused on innovation and broader ways to cut plastics waste and pollution.
“I want to see us move more towards radical, broader-based solutions around innovation for non-plastics products, focusing on the source,” she said, adding that the policy would be “moving towards big consumers and manufacturers of plastic and trying to drive real change in the industry. That's going to be phase two of the work that you do.”
In mid-2018, Raimondo launched the task force with an executive order. In comments to the group in a video posted by the EcoRI News non-profit journalism website, Raimondo said she would soon release a second executive order.
“You all know as I know that plastics are an enormous source of our pollution,” Raimondo said. “I support what you're proposing and I'm grateful for your work, but I want to announce today that I plan to sign another executive order leading to stage two of this work. Because I think we've only just begun.”
A spokeswoman for the state's Department of Environmental Management did not respond to questions about the new executive order.
A representative of the American Chemistry Council, which was not on the task force, told the group that the state's plastics industry wanted a be a “more active part” of the next phases of the state government's work.
“You can only innovate if the plastics industry is part of the innovative talk,” said Joan Milas, a contract lobbyist for ACC with the Providence, R.I. firm JPM Associates.
“We certainly applaud the efforts of everyone at the table,” she said. “I've probably been a thorn in everyone's side because I'm constantly hammering about the industry, but the industry is an important component going forward so we hope that we can be part of the dialogue.”
Milas told the group that the chemical and plastics industries have worked with the state government constructively for more than 20 years on issues including waste and film recycling.
In a presentation in January to the task force, ACC urged caution on plastic bans, arguing that the environmental cost of plastics in consumer goods is 3.8 times less than alternative materials.
And it pointed to efforts like the industry-funded Alliance to End Plastic Waste as an example of efforts to reduce marine litter.
But the report argues that plastic pollution is a significant contributor to shoreline litter and that plastic bags and film are the “predominant contaminant” of recycling loads in Rhode Island.
It also said microplastics eaten by fish and aquatic life put the state's fishing industry and aquatic ecosystems at risk.
The task force, which had 20 members from government, environmental groups and packaging, restaurant and hospitality businesses, said in the report's executive summary that “developing stronger policies to reduce the use of plastics and single-use disposables is a top goal” of Raimondo's administration.
The 35-page report outlined four main priorities: facilitating voluntary efforts to reduce single-use plastics; the bag ban legislation; increase awareness of plastic pollution and recycling; and support innovation including but not limited to single-use plastics.
As an example of that innovation, the report noted a pilot effort in the state to take fiberglass boats that would normally be landfilled or abandoned, and instead use them as fuel for cement kilns.
“There are a lot of resources we have here in the state in our business community,” said Johnathan Berard, co-chair of the task force and the Rhode Island state director for the environmental group Clean Water Action. “We're not going to just ban and legislate our way out of this problem. There's opportunities for business, for economic growth, for all sorts of ways to tackle this issue.”
The report outlined steps to take in the short term, in the next three years, and in the longer-term, over the next five years, with new laws, business innovation and education.
One suggestion: have Rhode Island be the first U.S. state to join the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's New Plastics Economy project.
Closer to home politically, the report discussed a more comprehensive legislative program around disposables, both plastic and non-plastic, and bottle bills and extended producer responsibility for plastic packaging.
The task force meeting heard that legislation was being prepared mirroring the report's bag ban language, and that additional restrictions on expanded polystyrene foam and plastic straws were being considered.
Berard said given the short time frame the task force was working under, they chose to focus legislative work on bags and adopted their proposal for the ban on plastic checkout bags, 5-cent fee on paper bags and a call for distributing free reusable bags to the needy.
The report said the group debated various bag options, including banning both types of single-use bags or putting fees on both types, but adopted its proposal as a compromise.
Berard and Raimondo both said they wanted to reduce the negative impact of a bag law on businesses, lower-income consumers and senior citizens.
“The goal of a plastic bag policy is not to switch from one type of single-use disposable bag (plastic) to another (paper), but rather to reduce use of disposables overall,” the report said.
The report noted that plastic bag bans have been introduced in previous legislative sessions, and Raimondo told the group that she appointed different groups to the task force to see if they could hammer out some consensus.
“I'm going to need all of you to help get this bill passed,” she said. “We have momentum right now and I want to keep momentum going.”