RI Senate votes to ban foam take


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Oct 01, 2023

RI Senate votes to ban foam take

Rhode Island's war on plastic has advanced from bags and straws to the little

Rhode Island's war on plastic has advanced from bags and straws to the little sticks that stir peoples' drinks and polystyrene take-out containers.

State senators on Thursday voted 33 to 2 to ban plastic cocktail stirrers and plastic foam to-go boxes at restaurants, pubs, snack bars and other food-service establishments.

"When we pass this legislation, which I hope we will, we will join Maine, Vermont, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, Colorado, Washington and Washington, D.C. with similar legislation," Sen. Josh Miller, sponsor of the bill, said before the vote.

The polystyrene ban now moves to the House, where a version by Rep. David Bennett is currently held in committee.

Even if it passes, it is unclear what impact the ban would have on restaurants and their customers.

The state straw ban passed two years ago has not been enforced, and alternative straw materials such as paper and bamboo have not displaced the old-fashioned plastic straws in soda and iced-coffee cups throughout the state.

The bill passed by the Senate on Thursday would not allow a food-service establishment to "prepare, sell or provide food or beverages in or on a disposable food-service container that is composed in whole or in part of polystyrene foam."

They could also get in trouble if they give out plastic stirrers or "a device that is designed solely to mix liquids that are intended for internal human consumption and are contained in a single-serving container."

Hospitals, farmers markets, nursing homes and food pantries are exempt from the ban. Establishments can also sell pre-prepared food if they bought it prepackaged in foam from a wholesaler.

But anyone caught handing out foam to-go boxes or popping plastic swizzle sticks in their cocktails could be hit with a $100 fine.

That includes not only the business owner, but "any principal, proprietor, agent, servant or employee."

If it passes, the ban would go into effect Jan. 1, 2025.

As expected, the plastics industry says a polystyrene ban is a bad idea that would cost restaurants money and lead to more waste.

"The COVID-19 crisis highlighted the importance of sanitary and cost-effective food-service packaging – two attributes that polystyrene foam food-service containers exhibit exceedingly well," Danielle Fortunato, regional director of state government affairs for the Plastics Industry Association wrote in House testimony. "Further, the shock-absorption properties of polystyrene are unsurpassed. There is a reason polystyrene is the popular choice to meet consumer demands."

In other business Thursday, the Senate voted unanimously to cut tangible property taxes for businesses, a top priority of Senate leadership and the business-backed Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council this year.

The tax cut bill would give businesses a $50,000 exemption on the tangible tax, which cities and towns charge on equipment.

That's a smaller tax cut than the one Sen. Melissa Murray, D-Woonsocket, proposed earlier this year, which would have created a $100,000 exemption.

The legislation would have the state reimburse municipalities for the revenue lost to the new exemption. The scaled-back exemption is estimated to cost $25 million, down from $36 million in the original, according to Senate spokesman Greg Pare.

Around 75% of Rhode Island businesses are expected to have no tangible tax bill under the $50,000 exemption.

Another change from the original tangible tax cut bill will freeze the reimbursement municipalities get from the state at this year's exemption amount.

That means that if the local economy grows, more businesses take advantage of the exemption and there is inflation, the reimbursement won't go as far.

The Senate on Thursday also passed legislation that would make the director of the Department of Transportation the chairman of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority Board of Directors.

The proposal came after Senate President Dominick Ruggerio backed off a plan to fold RIPTA into the DOT.

Eight senators voted against making the DOT director chairman of the RIPTA board.

"The director of RIDOT has an incredible amount of work to oversee properly maintaining our roads and bridges, and RIPTA has an incredible amount of work to do to help us avoid the worst effect of climate change and execute the transit master plan," Sen. Linda Ujifusa said in opposition to the bill. "It does not seem reasonable to expect one person to be in charge of RIDOT and take on additional oversight chores at RIPTA."

In response to RIPTA earlier this year hiring a lobbyist without a vote of its board, the Senate on Thursday also passed a bill requiring the agency to vote on all expenditures greater than $10,000.

The length of time employees could take off of work to provide care for a newborn or another loved one would increase from 13 to 24 weeks under a bill passed by the Senate on Thursday.

The expanded family leave, which can be unpaid, would be available to any employee who has worked at their job for at least one year uninterupted.

The expanded-leave bill was introduced by Pawtucket Democratic Sen. Sandra Cano, who is running for Congress.