Senators voted legislation banning plastic grocery bags out of committee Monday.
The Committee on Housing, Public Works and Waste Management discussed potential amendments to bills for beverage container deposits and to institute a comprehensive recycling and composting system in the territory, before holding them for more debate. All three bills were proposed by Gov. Kenneth Mapp.
Monday’s hearing was the second hearing on them. (See Related Links below)
All three would help extend the lives of the territory’s landfills, improve the environment and have other positive benefits, according to testimony from the V.I. Waste Management Authority, the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and environmental groups.
Plastic bags are a serious problem for the marine environment and a major component of litter throughout the territory, said Doug White of the V.I. Recycling Partnership. DPNR Commissioner Dawn Henry, Interim Waste Management Authority Director Steve Aubin and other testifiers agreed.
"As many of us know, the bags are frequently carried off by prevalent winds and become litter and environmental hazards," Aubin said. Banning them "would effectively reduce windblown litter and thereby reduce costs associated with cleanups of the same," he said.
The plastic bag ban approved in committee Monday appeared to be simpler to implement and seemed to raise fewer concerns and suggested amendments than the deposit bill and comprehensive recycling and composting proposal. Committee Chair Marvin Blyden, a St. Thomas senator, said the other measures will be discussed again, as amendments are drafted.
"It is better to take our time and do it right the first time," Blyden said.
Marty Goldberg, owner of Fruit Bowl, a small specialty grocery on St. Thomas, gave written testimony about his store’s use of plastic bags, saying a ban on plastic bags, combined with paper bags available for an additional cost to the customer, would be easy for stores to implement and would make it simpler and easier for customers and stores to make the switch to no longer using plastic bags.
When he first opened Fruit Bowl, more than forty years ago, he used paper bags. They moved to plastic bags, like most stores, to save a little money, but later tried to switch away.
"When we expanded and renovated our store some eight years ago, we began selling our version of an eco-bag at our cost to our customers. This was done in the hope that long-held shopping practices could be changed. Since that time, some fifty thousand of our eco bags were sold or given away. It was our hope that we could cut our costs somewhat, while at the same time doing the right thing for our island. It certainly felt like a win-win situation."
But it did not really change things much.
"What I have come to learn, however, is old habits are extremely difficult to change. To this day I see customers demanding that their plastic bags are doubled, despite the fact that one bag is capable of handling most of their purchases," he said.
His small store goes through about 800,000 plastic grocery bags per year, Goldberg said.
"One can only imagine how many millions of bags are dispensed at the larger stores like Pueblo and Plaza Extra," he said.
As is, the bill would forbid some plastic bags, but allow those that are designated "compostable." Some testimony suggested that those bags were also bad for the environment, releasing toxic chemicals, and senators discussed amending it to prohibit all plastic bags and allowing only paper bags, which can be composted. No changes were made Monday and it goes next to the Rules and Judiciary Committee where it could be amended.
Testifying over the phone, Susan Collins, president of the Container Recycling Institute, in Culver City, CA, said bottle deposits are cost effective for localities in part because "no tax dollars are used." They pay for themselves out of the non-refunded portion of the container deposit, and out of reduced waste management costs for cleanup, she said.
The bill for container deposits would require all beverage containers up to 1 gallon or 3.7 liters in capacity to carry a deposit, part of which will be refundable. The exact amount is still being debated. But the initial bill calls for a minimum deposit of five cents per container. As written, the bill requires larger stores to have "reverse vending machines" to accept returned containers, with the number of machines required varying by the size of the store. Senators are considering amendments to reduce the number of such machines required.
According to Collins, there are more than 45 container deposit programs throughout the world, with 10 in the U.S. and 10 in Canada, plus more in Europe, in the Pacific islands and elsewhere.
"On average a quarter of all marine debris found on beaches is comprised of beverages bottles and cans and the refundable deposits have reduced littering by beverage containers by 70 to 80 percent in states and total littering by 30 to 40 percent," Collins said.
Hawaii established a deposit system in 2005, and cut the portion of beverage litter on beaches from 14.5 percent to 5.7 percent – or by more than half, she said. She also said the processing would create jobs and the deposits would be a fundraising source for charitable organizations and those who are poor.
Aubain said the deposit program would require some new funding to pay for more oversight and enforcement.
"There will definitely be an increase to our compliance and enforcement division to monitor the program," he said.
Many details of the comprehensive recycling program legislation are still being worked out. It may involve curbside recycling bins, or it may involve putting all recycling in blue bags, to be separated at a sorting center.
Voting to send the plastic bag ban on to the Rules and Judiciary Committee were: Blyden, Sens. Jean Forde, Clifford Graham and Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly. Sens. Kenneth Gittens, Neville James and Almando "Rocky" Liburd were absent.