House lawmakers grapple with challenges over plastic regulation bills 

  • James Piet, the chairman of the New Hampshire Council on Developmental Disabilities, testified on at the Legislative Office Building how plastic straws are necessary to deal with life-long cerebral palsy, Sept. 10, 2019. Ethan DeWitt—Ethan DeWitt

  • In this Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018, photo, workers clean consumer plastic shopping bags from the clogged rollers of a machine which separates paper, plastic and metal recyclable material, in a processing building at EL Harvey & Sons, a waste and recycling company, in Westborough, Mass. Recycling programs across the United States are shutting down or scaling back because of a global market crisis blamed on contamination at the curbside bin. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

  • A shopper places her goods into her car outside a supermarket in Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday, Aug. 10, 2018. New Zealand plans to ban disposable plastic shopping bags by next July as the nation tries to live up to its clean-and-green image. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Friday that New Zealanders use hundreds of millions of the bags each year and that some of them end up polluting the precious coastal and marine environment. (AP Photo/Mark Baker) Mark Baker

  • FILE - This July 17, 2018, file photo, shows wrapped plastic straws at a bubble tea cafe in San Francisco. Avoiding single-use plastics like straws, plastic bags and water bottles is easier than it seems and can feel empowering, say those who've managed to stop using them altogether. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File) Jeff Chiu

Monitor staff
Published: 9/11/2019 1:29:51 PM

James Piet counts himself a supporter of environmental protection. But that’s not what brought him into the Legislative Office Building Tuesday.

The Concord resident, the chairman of the New Hampshire Council on Developmental Disabilities, has had lifelong cerebral palsy. And as lawmakers prepare for another year of debates over whether and how to ban plastic products, Piet wanted to make his concerns known around one area in particular: plastic straws.

“I’m very concerned about the environment, however for myself to survive, I need straws to drink,” he told the committee. “Especially plastic.”

Cerebral palsy inhibits motor functions, to various degrees of severity, meaning that many with the disability have difficulty speaking and moving. And without plastic straws, Piet told a subgroup of the House Municipal and County Government committee, drinking becomes a challenge as well.

Piet has tried the alternatives. Paper straws collapse on his tongue. Bamboo and hard plastic alternatives damage the inside of his mouth. 

In recent years, Democrats in the House – galvanized by national interest among environmentalists – have tinkered with legislation to regulate “single-use plastics”: disposable items like bags, cutlery and straws. After a string of setbacks, lawmakers are hoping this year is the one to finally get a bill to the finish line. 

But doing so means grappling with a number of thorny questions over what the regulations should look like and where they should take effect. 

A bill this year to require restaurants and other businesses to only provide straws upon request was killed by the Senate. But Piet argues the legislation still under consideration leaves open the possibility for regulations on straws that could harm those with disabilities.

“We want them to be very clear on the law, and not leave any room for misinterpretation,” he said. 

On Tuesday, lawmakers moved to steer the focus away from straws. The subcommittee, which is working on tweaks to a pair of plastic regulation bills before the next legislative session in January, agreed to center their efforts around plastic bags – and specifically plastic bags distributed at the point of sale.

The House representatives are also considering changing the broader intent of the legislation from a bill to empower local communities to impose plastic regulations, to a bill making those regulations apply statewide. 

As presently written, the two bills, House Bill 102 and House Bill 559, would allow municipalities and towns to set in motion their own bans or regulations on plastics. Some cities have clamored for that freedom. But others have warned such a system would lead to a patchwork of laws that could harm businesses operating across the state. 

Rep. Laurel Stavis, a Lebanon Democrat, is in the latter group. Allowing towns to pass their own regulations will impede on local businesses’ operations much more than a state ban, she argued.

“On top of being limited in the types of plastic bottles they might be able to sell, they now have to deal with different laws in different states,” she said. “And top of that, maybe in New Hampshire, different laws in different cities and towns. I don’t know how a store stays in business under that scenario.”

The three members agreed to focus on state regulations over plastic bags specifically. That could mean adding a state-wide charge per bag, imposing new minimums for the thickness of certain bags to encourage re-use, and differentiating between large and small stores, according to committee chairman Clyde Carson, a Warner Democrat.  

Representatives in the plastics industry say none of the options for regulation are desirable. In an hour-long testimony Tuesday, Paul Poe, government affairs and environment regional manager for the Dart Container Corporation said bans on single-use plastics could lead to hardships for local businesses and bankruptcies. 

“There will always be a need for a single-use product,” said Poe, speaking on behalf of a global organization that makes plastic and foam products – including the popular “Solo” brand cups. 

“Underlying that is choice. If you have a restaurant or a market and your clientele wants something that’s compostable, you’re more than welcome to buy it. But if you have a mom and pop grocery store on the corner and they’re making paper-thin margins … they should have the ability to buy a product that keeps them in business.”

Instead, Poe and others have argued, consumers should be encouraged to recycle the plastic they do use. But that can be easier said than done when more and more communities are choosing to dispose of their recyclables as trash after a collapse in the global recycling market. Moreover, most single-stream recycling programs explicitly forbid plastic bags.

For Rep. Judith Spang, the sponsor of House Bill 559 and a strong advocate for plastic regulations, the discussions are just a rehash of the same debates that have been had for years.

Last year, two bills to impose regulations on plastic were ended by the Republican legislature. This year, the Democratically-controlled Senate put a halt to two more – killing one outright and massively reworking the other. 

This year, Spang hopes the Legislature can present two options to lawmakers and industry insiders: regulating by town or regulating by state. 

“Now that once again, the industry sees that the choice is even clearer than before .... because they’re going to decide which one they’re going to support and which one they’re not,” the Durham Democrat said. 

“My feeling is that they’re going to say we don’t want either one,” she continued. “At this point, it’s a matter of public sentiment. Are (advocates) going to be putting pressure on legislators again to do something?”

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




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