ST. THOMAS — Governor Kenneth Mapp’s proposal to restrict the use of plastic bags in the territory overcame its first hurdle on Monday, as senators who make up the Committee on Housing, Public Works and Waste Management gave the measure the nod of approval at the Earl B. Ottley Legislative Hall.
The plastic bag regulation bill now moves to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary, chaired by Senator Kenneth Gittens.
Bill No. 31-0379, one of three solid waste reforms sent down to the Legislature in February by the governor, was widely supported by senators, experts and concerned citizens. The legislation will require businesses and organizations to utilize reusable bags or compostable plastic bags with the goal of eliminating plastic bags at point of sale checkouts. A large percent of all litter consists of these bags with many ending up in our waters, where plastic bags can choke sea life, kill corals and end up as chemicals in our food chain. Plastic bags will still be allowed where no acceptable substitute exists such as wrapping prepared foods or meats.
Several have testified in favor of the bag ban, including local grocer Marty Goldberg, owner of the Fruit Bowl on St. Thomas. Mr. Goldberg applauded the effort to ban the widespread use of plastic bags and agreed that the proposed laws governing bag use are critical. He explained that Fruit Bowl has given away or sold more than 50,000 reusable bags, however most customers request plastic bags and would likely continue to do so until regulations and education efforts helped them to form new habits.
“People will, I believe, not only follow the new rules, but will happily accept these rules as benefiting ourselves and our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren,” Mr. Goldberg said. “In my little store we go through approximately 80,000 sacks per year. One can only imagine how many millions of bags are dispensed at the larger stores like Pueblo and Plaza Extra.”
He said retailers began using plastic in lieu of paper as a cheaper alternative.
The National Resources Defense Council estimates that the average American Family takes home more than 1,500 plastic bags each year and millions of these bags now litter our landscapes and pollute our oceans.
Department of Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Dawn Henry, who assisted in drafting the solid waste reform bills, thanked senators on behalf of the governor for supporting the ban on plastic bags, which she said is an essential component in reducing litter and protecting marine life.
The commissioner urged senators to act swiftly on the other two solid waste measures, which were held in Committee during Monday’s hearing for further amendment.
“The three initiatives are very important to the governor and his vision for preserving the life of the landfills,” she said. “It is imperative that the three bills are passed together.”
But senators expressed concern that at least one of the three measures could add extra costs to local businesses. Bill No. 31-0316 seeks to establish a bottle recycling law that would mandate certain businesses accept bottles through either special vending machines that customers can place the bottles in, or through a contractor, the latter of which would be subject to a small processing fee.
Senator Jean Forde said D.P.N.R. would need to get involved in some capacity to ensure all protocols are followed. But Ms. Hendry and other officials at the hearing said the new law could also serve as a potential area for new recycling businesses to be birthed.
And D.P.N.R. will need additional funding to prepare its own employees for the changes if the bills were to become law, including training, and would have to tweak its own guidelines to ensure swift implementation of certain section of the statute.
Responding to a question from Senator Marvin Blyden, D.P.N.R. said if the bill were to become law by year’s end, D.P.N.R. would be only partially prepared, but enough to start the execution process.
The Committee on Housing, Public Works and Waste Management will revisit the bills to establish a redemption value on every beverage container sold in the U.S. Virgin Islands and to enforce recycling through separation of trash at a hearing scheduled for 10 a.m. on July 8, 2016.
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