Newport County legislators hope mini alcohol bottle ban 'nips' RI's plastic waste problem

·6 min read

On any given day, Newporters may stumble across several miniature bottles of Fireball Whiskey, or some other brand of hard liquor, strewn around the city’s streets and sidewalks.

While cheap and popular, these petite 50mL shots, colloquially known as “nips,” collect in stormwater and end up in Newport Harbor. Hoping to combat this plastic litter issue, five Newport County representatives have co-sponsored a bill that could eliminate them from store shelves entirely.

“Nips is short for niprecent, which means small measure,” said Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, D-Jamestown, one of the bill’s nine total co-sponsors. “They’re small drinks, but big pollution.”

Organizations such as Clean Ocean Access started to notice their ocean clean-ups were less effective against the growing amount of single-use plastics, such as nip bottles, they were finding on the beaches.
Organizations such as Clean Ocean Access started to notice their ocean clean-ups were less effective against the growing amount of single-use plastics, such as nip bottles, they were finding on the beaches.

Rep. David Bennett (District 20) introduced his latest piece of legislation to the Statehouse on January 21. The bill, H7064, would prohibit the sale and distribution of alcoholic beverage containers smaller than 100 milliliters. The House Committee on Environmental and Natural Resource’s hearing for the bill is scheduled for Jan. 27.

Alongside Ruggiero, four other Newport County representatives have co-sponsored this bill: Representatives Lauren Carson, D-Newport; Marvin Abney, D-Newport; John “Jay” G. Edwards, D-Tiverton; and Terri Cortvriend, D-Portsmouth. Cortvriend said her primary motive for co-signing the bill was to curb litter on Aquidneck Island.

“It’s not that I’m advocating against people purchasing them, the reason I signed it is that I’m really concerned about the plastic pollution,” Cortvriend said. “I bet you I could go walk a quarter-mile to the Cumby’s or the closest liquor store and I bet you I could find 10 at a minimum, because I see them all the time, and others do as well.”

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Like Cortvriend, Clean Ocean Access Program Director Dave McLaughlin said his organization often encounters empty nip bottles while cleaning debris and litter from Aquidneck Island beaches. He said the places most affected by nip bottles depend on where they are discarded, but a majority of those found in the ocean were carried by stormwater through ocean-bound drains after being discarded on roadways or sidewalks, he said.

“Down (at Perotti Park), in that corner of the harbor, there’s a really big pipe like 60 inches in diameter, and that has huge amounts of stormwater that floods all the way from the hospital to the Viking Hotel,” McLaughlin said. “If someone left a nip bottle on Broadway and it rained, it would go into Newport Harbor.”

McLaughlin said local legislation like Bennett’s bill can act as the first step in getting manufacturers to limit the production of single-use plastics. When his organization launched in 2006, they would mostly encounter large trash items, such as tires and bedframes, which don’t return after they’re cleaned from the shores due to their size. Over the next decade, however, the group started to notice their ocean clean-ups were less effective against the growing amount of single-use plastics they were finding on the beaches, which would reaccumulate in the ocean due to how commonly used and discarded they are.

“When we went out one day and picked up dozens of plastic bags, dozens of bottles and straws and caps and food wrappers, we realized that if we came back to the same shoreline a few months later, they were all there again,” McLaughlin said. “The manufacturer of the nip bottle also needs to be responsible for the lifecycle of the nip bottle.”

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Cortvriend said she would prefer the state institute a nip bottle collection program instead, like the one which would have been created through Bennett’s “Miniature Alcoholic Beverage Container Act of 2021,” which he introduced during last year’s legislative session.

Instead of banning them outright, last year’s H113 sought to establish a recycling program whereby people could return their empty nip bottles for a refund of 50 cents. He had also introduced a similar bill, H5280, which would create a similar deposit-refund program for non-alcoholic plastic beverage containers.

Nip bottles on the shelf of a liquor store.
Nip bottles on the shelf of a liquor store.

While the nip bottle recycling program idea received support from environmental groups, such as the Conservation Law Foundation and Clean Ocean Access, it also received pushback from groups such as the RI Liquor Store Association, which argued it would create undue burden for liquor stores to set up and manage these collection sites.

“Liquor stores were concerned they wouldn’t have the capacity to store that many nips,” said Cortvriend, who heard the bill last year as a member of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee. “We don’t have a collection system set up, but we have to address the plastic pollution.”

While Cortvriend said her main interest in the most recent bill is its ability to reduce plastic waste, Ruggiero said it appealed to her because it could solve more problems than just litter. She argued it could reduce instances of drinking and driving and boost liquor sales for restaurants, who would not have to deal with patrons pouring nips into their non-alcoholic beverages.

“Folks will buy them and go into a restaurant or bar, buy a soda and just pour the nip into the soda rather than pay full price for a drink,” Ruggiero said. “It just doesn’t seem right.”

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As for local liquor stores, opinions seem mixed as to whether this legislation will solve the issues at hand or hurt business in the long run. The majority of the 14 liquor stores The Newport Daily News reached out to for comment declined to speak on the issue on record, with some citing a general policy not to comment on political matters, while others did not want their opinion to upset customers.

Nip bottles are one of the most popular items sold by local liquor stores, said Seth Margolis of Fifth Ward Liquors, estimating they account for around 15% of sales by the end of the year, but not all of them are fans of having to sell them. Not only do they create waste, but they come at a steep markup for store owners.

“We don’t make a lot of money on those, obviously it’s volume, you have got to sell a lot in order to make money off them,” Margolis said. “Quite honestly, I don’t enjoy selling nips all day long, people will come in ‘give me five nips of those, five nips of these.’ I’d rather people just buy a bigger bottle.”

While Margolis said he would be in favor of this kind of bill, as he would like to see it cut down on plastic litter around Newport, he remains skeptical as to whether it would actually do enough to curb alcohol-related plastic waste. Since the bill only prohibits alcohol bottles smaller than 100 mL, he said people will probably switch from nip bottles to these “double-shots” instead, which are also usually made with plastic packaging.

“I don’t think it’s going to be effective if they just get rid of the nip bottles,” Margolis said. “You would just have companies discounting those to get them down to where people will buy those now that they don’t have nips anymore… People who buy nips everyday, they’ll probably just buy the next size up. They’re not going to just quit drinking. I don’t think it works like that.”

This article originally appeared on Newport Daily News: Bill to ban nip bottles in RI co-sponsored by five Newport County reps

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