Plastic’s Tactics: Industry lobbyists overrun governor-appointed taskforce

On November 30, the Renaissance Church on Broad Street hosted a reusable bag sew-in. Volunteers brought their sewing machines, needles and thread and made bags from material donated by Ocean State Job Lot. And of course the volunteers did not forget the finishing touch, which was to stitch handles on the bags. Believe it or not, this quiet post-Thanksgiving event would have enraged plastic industry lobbyists, who have misgivings when it comes to stitched handles. 

In July 2018, Governor Raimondo commissioned a committee called The Taskforce to Tackle Plastics. The commission was designed to help Rhode Island, whose bays are littered with plastic, tackle the material from every angle. But on the taskforce’s legislative front, “tackling plastics” was whittled down to tackling “thin plastic bags,” and the presence of plastic industry representatives at the subcommittee’s meetings did much of the carving. 

“Legislative efforts were focused on one item:  thin plastic bags. This seemed to have been decided before the Legislative Solutions subcommittee even met and it was affirmed by a vote taken of subcommittee members, including plastics industry representatives,” said  Amy Moses, a governor-appointed taskforce member and Vice President and RI Director of Conservation Law Foundation.

Of the taskforce’s four subgroups, Legislative Solutions was responsible for creating legislation. It was headed by Carolyn Murray of The Rhode Island Beverage Association and Johnathan Berard of Clean Water Action. The Legislative Solutions meetings were open to the public. 

Berard and Moses told Motif plastics industry lobbyists showed up to the subgroup’s meetings and voted. Page six of the final report written to Governor Raimondo notes lobbyists’ efforts in a semi-laudatory way. “In addition to the members of the Taskforce who were appointed by the Governor, there are many organizations and individuals that attended meetings and contributed to the work of the Taskforce, including representatives from the plastics industry who came to meetings to collaborate.” Specifically, there were members of the American Chemistry Council (which represents plastic manufacturers), members of Toray Plastics, Stop and Shop, convenience store trade groups, and paper and packaging trade groups.

Though the final report written to the governor reflects that no decisions were made by voting and that votes were just taken, according to Moses, the decisions indicated by how the majority of the room voted mirrored the decisions made by co-chairs. “We briefly discussed indicated ways to tackle plastic, and they were listed on paper sheets on the wall.  Several great ideas were offered up, such as a minimum percentage for recycled plastics, deposit refunds on containers, and addressing single-serving water bottles and Styrofoam food containers, but focusing on bags got the most votes, and that’s the one issue where the subcommittee focused,” Moses told Motif.
The industry’s reasons for narrowing the legislation’s scope can only be speculated upon. Considering the Innovations subcommittee brought up ideas like extending producer responsibility, potential financial loss would seem to motivate the industry. Berard explained this is why “the plastic industry has opposed a bottle deposit law in Rhode Island and always will.” 

Massachusetts has a bottle deposit law in which retailers give people $.05 for every bottle they recycle. This could be why Massachusetts has a high bottle return rate (in 2017, it was 56.8%).

“The Massachusetts bottle deposit law was written before bottled water was a thing,” said Berard. “And in 2014 when bottled water became a thing, the natural conclusion was to extend the bottle deposit law to bottled water, but the plastic industry spent millions in ad campaigns to make this nearly impossible.” 

According to publicly available campaign contribution data, the American Beverage Association spent over $8 million in ads and campaigns, which told voters to oppose this amendment. In addition to the expected soda companies, plastic-product manufacturers such as AdvanTech Plastics, Agr International, CDF Corporation, and Closure Systems International are members or associate members of the American Beverage Association. Beverage companies are often responsible for handling empty bottles, and these recycled bottles cost some ABA members money. 

The context of the state’s proposed plastic bag ban is also revealing. At the time of the Legislative Solutions’ meetings (November 2018 to January 2019), half the state of Rhode Island already had a plastic bag ban. Barrington is one such example. After writing their plastic bag ban, thicker plastic bags (made to withstand more than one use) entered Barrington stores. Subsequently, Barrington amended the plastic bag ban to say that the bags must have “stitched handles.” The ban for the state of Rhode Island, however, did not include a stipulation that required “stitched handles.” 

“Because the proposed state legislation had preemption language that would nullify the existing community plastic bag bans, it was basically a way to reintroduce thick plastic bags into communities like Barrington and the many other cities and towns throughout the state that require stitched handles. Unfortunately, this is a common tactic where industry reps support weaker legislation at the state level which voids the work that communities have done. Conservation Law Foundation and other groups opposed the legislation because it would wipe out local ordinances, put a weaker law into place allowing thick plastic bags in communities that banned them, and prevent communities from taking action in the future,” Moses said.
Berard supported the proposed bill in hopes the senate would amend it to include the “stitched-handle” requirements. When asked if he thought the plastic industry would like the words “stitched handles” in the proposed legislation, Berard thought about it and said, “Probably not.” 

“it is nearly impossible to get anything passed with such ferocious opposition from the plastics industry. The money they [the plastics companies] spend is nominal compared to the profit they’ll make,” Berard said before explaining that due to Citizens United, the plastics industry is able to invest in political campaigns and candidates even close to election time. The industry also has money in market research, advertisements, lobbyists and ad buys.  

Ultimately, their financial power comes from the oil industry since the two are chemically related. “Plastic is mostly made from fracked oil and gas … As we switch to renewable energy and gas heating becomes less reliable, Americans will be spending less on fossil fuels. Thus, it’s in the interest of oil industry lobbyists (such as the American Petroleum Institute) to invest heavily in the future of plastic. The plastic industry estimates that our CURRENT use of plastic will increase between three and four fold by 2050,” Berard explains. 

The plastics industry’s ability to create confusion is one of its most subtle forms of power. A common argument the industry makes is that making a paper bag has four times the environmental impact as plastic bags. This statistic is misleading because it neglects to consider that paper bags can be put in curbside recycling. Most importantly, this statistic is an attempt to curve the agenda of communities. All communities in Rhode Island with plastic bag bans are creating change: a switch to reusable bags rather than from plastic to paper.

Paper bags haven’t been in the crosshairs due to the concern of Mayor Elorza and the Racial Environmental Justice Committee that a fee for paper bags seems unfair to vulnerable populations. Instead of developing an unnecessary punishment, the Providence community has focused on increasing access to reusable bags. 

From jockeying to narrow the scope of Rhode Island’s legislation to creating public confusion, the list of plastics’ tactics is long. Here in Rhode Island, however, the story isn’t bleak. While the weak single-use plastic bag ban was being written, an urban eco-action group Zerowaste Providence launched a Stitch-It-or-Ditch-It campaign and effectively encouraged residents to tell states reps why the state ban must require stitched handles. 

After the state bill failed and the Providence ban passed, Zerowaste had reusable bag swaps at the community library and handed out free reusable bags at grocery stores. 

In fact, Providence has managed to make this story fun. High school members of Groundworks RI, a local environmental stewardship group, designed South-Providence-themed bags, which were distributed on Broad Street. The high schooler’s designs are “really unique,” said Zerowaste member Sasha. 

Whether they’ll outdo the carefully sewn bags made at the Renaissance Church remains to be seen. But this is a good step toward transitioning to reusable bags, which will help the environment and create new habits that hopefully will make transporting goods easier and healthier for everyone.

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