Should Rhode Island ban nips? One legislator sees it as a way to cut down on litter

·7 min read
A customer making a purchase of bulk nips at Broadway Liquor's in Providence, was not happy  upon hearing of the proposed bill.
A customer making a purchase of bulk nips at Broadway Liquor's in Providence, was not happy upon hearing of the proposed bill.

Rep. David Bennett, D-Warwick, is tired of spotting discarded nips strewn along the side of the road whenever he walks his dog, or takes his grandson out in his stroller.

So he's proposing that the General Assembly make it illegal to sell the miniature bottles of alcohol.

"It’s only supporting drinking and driving, and it’s causing a hell of a littering problem," Bennett said in a Thursday interview. "There's a ton of reasons to get rid of these things. What are they good for?"

House Bill 7064, which would ban the sale of "any sealable bottle, can, jar, or carton" that holds less than 100 milliliters of alcohol, has support from environmental groups that see it as an opportunity to crack down on a ubiquitous form of litter.

Rep. David Bennett is the sponsor of legislation to ban nips.
Rep. David Bennett is the sponsor of legislation to ban nips.

But liquor stores say that it will hurt them financially and send customers over the border to Massachusetts, while singling out just one source of pollution.

'Everyone's buying them'

The commonly held wisdom is that people buy nips to drink while driving, or in public settings where alcohol isn't allowed, and then toss the empty bottle to get rid of the evidence.

"They fit in your hands, so you can act like you're coughing when you're driving," Bennett said.

"Restaurant and bar owners, they can't stand them," he added. "People come into their places, they order a soda, they have their own nips in their pocket or their pocketbook, and they're making their own mixed drinks. So the company's losing money."

But nips are also popular because they've become so much less expensive than a full-sized bottle of alcohol, according to Sal Saliba, the owner of Broadway Liquors in Providence, who estimates that they make up 20% of sales.

Plus, some people find that purchasing only a single-shot bottle at a time helps keep their alcohol consumption in check, he added.

"Everybody's buying them, so what else can we do?" Saliba said. "It's the only way to survive."

The miniature bottles can also come in handy if you only need a small amount of spirits for a specific recipe, or want to sample something you haven't tried before.

But Bennett, who doesn't drink at all, is unmoved by that argument.

"You can buy a fifth," he said.

More than 3,000 nip bottles collected on Aquidneck Island alone

It's hard to get precise data on how much nip bottles contribute to Rhode Island's litter problem.

In past years, Save The Bay collected around 3,000 glass and plastic bottles during its annual statewide coastal cleanups, but didn't track how many of those were nips.

Anecdotally, however, "nips are one of the most commonly seen forms of pollution and litter in Rhode Island," said Topher Hamblett, advocacy director for Save The Bay. "There’s no question about it."

Clean Ocean Access, which conducts shoreline cleanups on Aquidneck Island, keeps detailed tallies of the garbage that its volunteers pick up. Since 2013, they've collected more than 3,000 nip bottles, according to Dave McLaughlin, the group's founder and program director.

Plastic bottles of all kinds number in the "tens of thousands," McLaughlin said in an email. And that's just on the island alone, he noted.

"The thing we now hear from our members the most about, now that more than half of Rhode Islanders live in places with a plastic bag ban, is is these nip bottles," said Johnathan Berard, Rhode Island director of Clean Water Action.

Empty Fireball Whiskey nips adorn a telephone pole in Warwick.
Empty Fireball Whiskey nips adorn a telephone pole in Warwick.

He, too, has been noticing more discarded nips during his runs along the Blackstone River in recent years.

"I feel like they’re becoming more ubiquitous," Berard said. "That’s completely non-scientific — just my gut feeling."

Tiny bottles end up in waterways, where they're 'more than an eyesore'

Discarded nip bottles can be fatal when swallowed by marine creatures, and wreak havoc when they get caught in catch-basins and storm drain systems, Hamblett said.

"It’s much more than an eyesore," he said.

Often, the bottles travel through pipes and are deposited on beaches, where they slowly break down into microplastics, Hamblett said. Those tiny pieces of petroleum-based detritus end up floating in the waters of Narragansett Bay, where they're consumed by fish and animals.

"Nip bans will not solve the problem of littering itself," Hamblett acknowledged. "That’s a human behavior challenge of a huge magnitude. But addressing the problem at the source makes a lot of sense."

Even when empty nip bottles are placed in a recycling bin, they tend to wind up in the landfill because they're not large enough to be processed, Berard said.

The Rhode Island Resource Recovery Center's website notes that some plastic nip bottles "may be too small to be accurately captured and recycled through our current sorting process," so any that are less than 2 inches tall and 2 inches in diameter should just go straight in the trash.

And in most cities and towns, the reality is that single-use plastics like nip bottles get recycled "only as far as they’re able to be resold on the commodities market," Berard said. That means municipalities have to find a way to dispose of them, a cost that gets passed on to residents.

Good for the environment, but 'bad for our business'

Bennett introduced legislation last year that would have required consumers to pay a 50-cent deposit when they purchased nips.

The idea was to give people an incentive to return the bottles — but since Rhode Island doesn't have an existing bottle deposit program, it would have been up to liquor stores to take back the empties and refund the deposit. Bennett said that one store owner informed him that would be "a pain in the rear end."

Nips at the checkout counter at Broadway Liquors in Providence.
Nips at the checkout counter at Broadway Liquors in Providence.

"He said, 'I'd just as soon as get rid of them,'" Bennett said. "And I said, 'That's a good idea.'"

Liquor store owners aren't too sure about that.

Saliba, of Broadway Liquors, said he doesn't even like selling nips because they're not much of a money maker. He agrees they're bad for the environment — but feels that he has to offer them in order to compete with other liquor stores.

"Everybody wants nips," he said. "People are going to start buying from Massachusetts if they stop selling them in Rhode Island. The state would lose a lot of money, too."

Jan Malik, a former state legislator who now runs Malik's Fine Wine and Spirits in Warren, has similar concerns.

"It's a good idea for our environment," he acknowledged. "But I'm a businessman, and it's bad for our business."

Rhode Island already has a litter control tax in addition to a beverage container tax, and Malik questioned where that money was going. He also pointed out that towns could simply enforce the anti-littering laws that already exist.

"There’s been problems in this country for years … cigarette butts, McDonald’s cups, Burger King cups," he said. "Nothing’s ever been done about that."

Some states and towns already ban nips

There's some precedent for banning nips. New Mexico banned miniature liquor bottles last year, but carved out exceptions for hotel minibars, airplanes and golf courses. Utah has an even stricter law that applies to anything smaller than 200 milliliters.

In other New England states, bans have been adopted at the municipal level.

Chelsea, the first city or town in Massachusetts to prohibit the sale of nips, subsequently saw a reduction in public drunkenness, alcohol-related calls for ambulances, and people taken into custody for intoxication, according to CommonWealth Magazine.

Several other Massachusetts communities — including Newton, Mashpee, Falmouth and Wareham — have subsequently approved similar bans. Attleboro, however, opted against it.

Bennett's legislation would not prevent trains and airplanes from serving nips, "provided that any containers so distributed shall be collected prior to passengers disembarking off the train or aircraft, regardless of whether the contents of the container are consumed or not."

The bill is co-sponsored by Reps. Carol Hagan McEntee, Kathleen A. Fogarty, Deborah Ruggiero, Terri Cortvriend, Lauren Carson, Mia Ackerman, Marvin Abney and John G. Edwards. All are Democrats.

"I just feel it’s time time to get rid of the nips," Bennett said on Thursday. "You're breaking the law, you’re hurting business, you’re littering."

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Rhode Island legislator seeks to ban nips to reduce litter