House committee takes up proposal on regulating plastic products

Monitor staff
Published: 3/6/2019 6:51:33 PM

Sometime last spring, Hopkinton high schooler Joshua Duval arrived at an idea: The world is choking on nonbiodegradable plastic, and the town of Hopkinton should do something about it.

He wrote a letter to the town select board, calling on the body to ban single use plastics – the straws, spoons and shopping bags quickly thrown away – throughout the town. The water of the Contoocook River, which snakes through the town and deposits into the Merrimack, had been polluted too long, Duval argued.

“Imagine enjoying a good cast and a fight with what you think is a fish and when you pull your lure out of the water you find you have caught a three-pound bag of water with the Colonial Villager on it,” Duval wrote, in a March 2018 letter. “These bags are having a serious negative impact on nature and humans.”

The three-page letter, complete with quotations and a two-page bibliography, was taken up by the select board late that month. But the body quickly realized there was little they could do.

“We are doing further research but we believe that the Town does not have the authority to regulate the use of plastic bags,” town administrator Neal Cass wrote back on April 3. “In New Hampshire, towns only have the authority granted to them by the State, and we have not found where this authority has been given.”

It’s a reality that has aggravated certain towns across the state: Without express consent from the Legislature, attempts to manage, ban or charge for plastic bag use is off limits. On Wednesday, two bills to pass down that authority to towns and cities came before the House Municipal and County Government Committee, energizing local activists and business groups on opposing sides.

House Bill 102 would allow towns to “regulate the distribution” of single-use plastics to consumers, allowing for bans, surcharges or limitations. House Bill 559 would more narrowly allow only bans.

Environmental advocates say it’s precisely the kind of decision that should be made by individuals towns. Representatives of businesses and restaurants counter that it would create a patchwork of regulations that could create automatic disadvantages for establishments within those towns.

To Hopkinton resident Bonnie Christie, the legislation is the obvious answer to the select board’s dilemma. That April, the board passed the proposal onto the town’s Recycling Committee, on which Christie served.

The committee secured a $5,000 grant and immediately started an education and outreach campaign on plastic bag use. Members worked with the schools and community to design reusable bags to distribute at the polls on Election Day. Separately, students at the Harold Martin school passed around a petition to ban plastic straws across the school district.

Moving forward on initiatives with more teeth, Christie said, would require legislative change.

“The kids are all over this,” Christie said of the anti-plastic activism. “The kids in so many situations are way ahead of the game. We talk about the older generation passing the baton to the young generation, but how many times is the younger generation passing the baton to us? They can only go so far.”

A phalanx of environmental groups and residents filled the hearing room Wednesday, speaking in support of a proposal that’s come before the House unsuccessfully for years.

But business groups have assailed the proposal as well-meaning but economically dangerous.

John Dumais, president and CEO of the New Hampshire Grocers Association, said large grocery stores already had comprehensive recycling services – including on-site barrels to deposit plastic bags – as well as outreach efforts.

Mike Somers, CEO of the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association, added that many restaurants are making independent decisions to ban straws and provide biodegradable plastic utensils – or are requiring customers to ask for them directly.

Lobbyists said allowing towns to decide would create a haphazard system that would only push consumers away – particularly with the rise of the internet.

Curtis Barry, a lobbyist for the New Hampshire Retail Association said that brick and mortar stores are already grappling with the effects of online sales, which often put them at a natural competitive disadvantage even without local plastic restrictions. “Legislation like this exacerbates that situation,” he said.

Business groups argued that the answer was simply more robust recycling of the plastic products already made.

“We don’t have a plastic bag problem in New Hampshire,” Dumais said. “What we do have is we have a behavioral problem. We have people who are just lax about doing this.”

But advocates said those efforts – at a time when China has severely restricted the amount of recyclable products it chooses to accept – would never be enough on their own.

Nashua alderman Ernest Jette has been pushing for a solution to his city’s growing recycling crisis for years. Locally empowering legislation, he said, would allow Nashua to come up with a solution that meets its needs.

“Why would you say to a city like Nashua: ‘We’re not going to allow you to figure things out, we’re going to figure things out for you?’,” Jette said.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

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