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Rhode Island bill seeks to nip the problem with miniature plastic bottles of alcohol

The single-serving spirits, casually called “nips,” are often found pitched in the vicinity of liquor stores, piled near exit ramps, or washed up along waterways all over Rhode Island. Groups of citizen clean-up crew members want to do something about them.

From left, Elise Torello, Bill McCusker, Evan Travis and Stephanie Santos pose for a portrait with a pile of nips they have collected since December 2021. They are part of a few Rhode Island clean-up groups that have teamed up to pick up nips bottles around the state and have collected between 15,000 and 30,000 of the tiny alcohol bottles.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

SOUTH KINGSTOWN — Stephanie Santos captured the attention of social media recently when the eco-friendly mother posted a photo of her toting more than 3,000 miniature bottles of alcohol in a sack on her back, like Santa Claus.

The single-serving spirits, casually called “nips,” are often found pitched in the vicinity of liquor stores, piled near exit ramps, or washed up along waterways all over Rhode Island. You can’t take a walk without finding some glistening in the sun. Those 3,000 bottles Santos collected were gathered from just two small locations along Ashton Mill dam and Old Louisquisset Pike, in Lincoln, R.I.

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“Nips serve no purpose,” said Santos, who recently found a few at her son’s school bus stop. “There are usually about 10 kids over there, and I walked down the street and I looked at the bus stop and there were three small Fireball nips.”

Now, Santos has made it her mission to pick up and put an end to the tiny but troublesome bottles. She joined Lincoln Conservation Commission to help with local clean-up efforts in the Blackstone River Valley near her home.

The Lincoln Conservation Commission encourages cleanup participation by granting an hour of community service participation for every 50 nips collected.

From left, Stephanie Santos, Elise Torello, and Evan Travis scoop plastic nips into recycling bins on Tuesday, March 8, 2022.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Interested individuals can join the clean-up effort by showing up for events posted on the Lincoln Rhode Island Community Clean-up Crew! Facebook page.

The locations of the bottles indicate to Santos that people are tossing them aside in violation of state littering laws. “Sadly, it only takes a handful of people with poor repetitive behavior to really impact a community,” wrote Santos in a post on Facebook.

According to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, the penalty for littering ranges from $85 to $1,000. Some first-time violators may be ordered to pick up litter for not less than to or more than 25 hours, and are liable for clean-up costs.

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The department noted that ongoing litter clean-up, often completed with inmate cleaning crews from the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, costs the state approximately $400,000 a year. An estimated 65,000 trash bags are used to collect waste each year from roadways.

“So, unfortunately, some of these end up right on the street at my son’s bus stop, behind my pond, you know in our waterways,” Santos said. “They’re popping up everywhere, and they’re just not doing anything useful.”

But community clean-up crews are teaming up to do something about it, beyond picking up the tiny bottles. They’re hoping a new bottle bill might address the issue.

House Bill No. 7378, is on the Agenda on Thursday for the Rhode Island House of Representatives Environment and Natural Resources Committee. The Beverage Container Deposit Recycling Act of 2022 creates a refundable 10-cent deposit for non-reusable beverage containers, and a 4-cent handling fee that would be paid by distributors. But it’s not certain that the bill will deter litterbugs, who would have to return the bottles to get their money back, or how willing distributers might be to deal with the redemptions.

Bill McCusker uses a backhoe to place plastic nips into recycling bins. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

In South Kingstown, David Flanders, chairman of the South Kingstown Conservation Commission and Tree advisory board, has asked the town for a hearing to discuss an amendment to the current plastic ordinance, which bans plastic bags. He noted the “ubiquitous proliferation” of nonrecyclable bottles as a reason for updating the law.

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In his letter, Flanders said their small size makes nips easy to throw out of a vehicle, fills landfills, and the soil and groundwater with plastics. Fragments of the bottles slip into storm drains that carry them to the Saugatucket River, through Point Judith Pond, and into the Atlantic Ocean.

Flanders, who is a professional piano technician, became a certified arborist to join the South Kingstown Conservation Commission and Tree Board because he was concerned with the waste he has found strewn around Rhode Island.

“We are waiting to hear back from the council,” Flanders said. “We asked for a response to that letter. I will be checking the upcoming agendas.”

Liquor store managers have told Flanders the tiny bottles are a big part of their business.

Louis Cassis, president of Braintree, Mass.-based Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of Massachusetts wrote in a commentary in November that in the Commonwealth, the redemption rate was at an all-time low — 43 percent — while the unclaimed deposits, which funnel into the state’s General Fund, are at an all-time high of $61 million.

Bill McCusker, left, and Evan Travis pour plastic nips out of a canoe that they have used as storage before sorting the nips into recycling bins. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

On Tuesday, Santos brought her bottles to South Kingstown, where she met Bill McCusker of Friends of Saugatucket and other group members to combine their bottles for a picture that would be submitted to legislators at Thursday’s committee meeting.

They filled to overflowing a canoe used to pick trash out of the water in the summertime.

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McCusker said bottles aren’t the only source of pollution — vape cartridges, plastic straws from fast food, and doggie bags (some containing poop) are equally troubling. But one problem at a time.

“It’s like picking up pine cones that are on a pine tree,” McCusker said. “They’re everywhere.”

McCusker’s group offers free t-shirts and hats to people who help out. They’ve collected nips from every corner of Rhode Island. There are hot spots for discarded bottles.

“On ramps, off-ramps of highways, around liquor stores, their parking lots, roads leading from it, a lot of rural areas where it’s dark and secluded where you feel comfortable to throw something out the window,” McCusker said. He said drivers don’t want to get caught with them.

McCusker said banning the single-serving bottles is one way to get rid of them. Currently, small plastic bottles cannot be recycled in Rhode Island. They are too small to be sorted.

“In my view, they serve no purpose outside of accommodating people who want to drink while they drive,” he said. “But banning them is really the way. … This isn’t a new idea. Look around the nation, there are a lot of different communities that have already banned these things.”

Several towns in Massachusetts -- including Newton, Chelsea, Wareham, and Mashpee -- have recently banned sales of the tiny bottles or are considering doing so.

McCusker said he wants to make it clear, he’s not opposed to alcohol. He loves it. But he doesn’t enjoy the plastic pollution created by bottle waste.

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“I understand that liquor stores want to make sure they keep their bottom line as black as they can,” McCusker said. “But the environmental impact is my concern. In my opinion, it’s more important.”


Carlos Muñoz can be reached at carlos.munoz@globe.com. Follow him @ReadCarlos and on Instagram @Carlosbrknews.