Senate kills proposed restrictions on plastic bags, straws

Monitor staff
Published: 5/15/2019 5:34:23 PM

The Senate shot down a pair of efforts to reduce plastic use in New Hampshire on Wednesday, breaking with the House after concerns from businesses that the measures were too far-reaching.

In one vote, the body chose to kill House Bill 558, which would prevent restaurants and other food vendors from providing plastic straws unless asked by customers. That bill would have applied to vendors ranging from restaurants to food trucks to movie theaters to cafeterias, making exceptions for certain health care facilities.

Soon after, Senate Democrats stripped bare House Bill 560, a bill to ban plastic bags from distribution at groceries and other businesses. An amendment by Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes gutted the original bill and replaced it with a mandate that towns compile annual reports on their waste management practices.

The votes represented significant reversals for the legislation, which had been championed by advocates as key to reducing ocean pollution. Both bills sailed through the House on partisan votes led by Democrats, following growing national interest in cutting down on “single-use” plastics – products like iced coffee cups and plastic utensils that are thrown away after use.

But the bills had been strongly opposed by restaurant and grocer’s associations, convenience store associations, and even Theater Owners of New England, all of whom argued that businesses in their industry were already adapting to demand to curb plastic use and that the restrictions were not needed.

That was a common argument on the Senate floor Wednesday. Speaking on the proposed plastic straw restrictions, Manchester Sen. Kevin Cavanaugh, a Democrat, said the work was already being done.

“Citizens and businesses are already controlling use of plastic straws, whether it be (banning them) altogether or using resuable alternatives,” Cavanaugh said, calling the language “unnecessary.”

Cavanaugh added the straw bill didn’t carry any clear penalties for businesses in violation, raising concerns about its effectiveness.

That bill was killed by voice vote; no senators spoke in favor of it. The second bill, restricting plastic bag usage, attracted more debate.

HB 560 would prohibit “single-use carryout bags” – which could include plastic grocery or takeout food bags – from being distributed at all, a higher level of regulation than the straw bill. But the bill would impose a four-month grace period where bags could be distributed at 10 cents each until the ban went fully into effect.

Proponents argued that plastic bags aren’t easily recycled and are often poorly disposed of.

Butthat proposal also attracted industry opposition, and assurances that companies were taking independent steps to encourage responsible bag disposal. Sen. Harold French, a Franklin Republican, agreed with that. “Many are already taking the steps of using less plastic. This bill is unnecessary and potentially cumbersome.”

On Wednesday, Keene Sen. Jay Kahn, a Democrat, acknowledged those efforts, pointing to initiatives by Wal-Mart to seek to eliminate plastic bags from all its stores. But he argued that those efforts reflected a groundswell of awareness against plastic bags nation-wide, and should encourage the state to move forward with restrictions.

“I think we’re at that tipping point with our uses and overuse of plastic bags in our society,” he said. “We need to make advances. We are not going to be the first state coming away on this.”

A motion by French to kill the bill failed on party lines. But in the end, Feltes chose to replace the bill entirely, adding instead language that would require annual check-ins from cities and towns. The reports, to be filed with Department of Environmental Services, would have to include an accounting of the solid waste that went to landfills versus recycling and composting every year by weight. Any additional recycling programs, like Concord’s Pay-As-You-Throw program, would also have to be accounted for.

The amendment is a far cry from a plastic bag ban. But Feltes defended it as useful nonetheless, if only as a way to see what the state is doing already.

“I think the overarching issuRSAe that we need to deal with ... is how we deal with waste in the state of New Hampshire,” he said on the floor. “Whether or not we’re meeting our goals with respect to waste, including plastics, including other types of waste.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, at (603) 369-3307, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)




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