Shoppers could soon be paying to use plastic or paper bags to carry groceries out of food and convenience stores in Portland.
A working group will meet Monday to review other U.S. communities’ efforts to discourage single-use bags and consider an ordinance in Portland that would assess a 10-cent fee on every paper and plastic bag.
Some members of the Green Packaging Working Group are jaded by their last effort to reduce waste and litter in the city. The group developed a proposed ban on plastic foam packaging, at the request of the City Council, but the idea got tabled.
Advocates for a fee on bags say it would discourage their use and reduce a common form of litter that often clogs city storm drains and gets into waterways, where it is a hazard to marine life.
Opponents of the idea, including a spokeswoman for Maine grocers, say it would encourage people to shop outside Portland, and that education and recycling are better solutions to the litter problem.
More than 100 ordinances in 17 states and the District of Columbia ban plastic bags or impose fees on them, according to the Surfrider Foundation, a California-based environmental group that is advocating for stricter rules in Portland. Plastic bags are regulated in about 20 countries.
Los Angeles County, which banned plastic bags and imposes a 10-cent charge on paper bags, reported a 94 percent reduction in plastic bags and a 25 percent reduction in paper bags, according to data compiled by Portland’s staff.
Portland’s draft ordinance is based partly on one in Boulder, Colo., which imposed a fee and spent $120,000 to buy 40,000 reusable bags for its residents. No one is talking about spending city money on reusable bags in Portland.
Portland’s ordinance would cover paper and plastic single-use bags given out at supermarkets and convenience stores.
City Councilor Edward Suslovic, who chairs the working group, did not return calls Wednesday or Thursday to discuss why only grocery and convenience stores are being considered for the fee.
Several types of plastic bags would be exempt, including those used for newspapers, dry cleaning, bulk items, frozen food, fish, meat, flowers, plants and baked goods. Customers who have government-issued debit cars used for food stamps and welfare benefits would not be subject to the fee.
The retailer would keep 40 percent of the fee to educate customers, train employees and pay for signs alerting customers to the fee. The rest would go to the city to educate the public, clean storm drains and fund cleanup events. It’s unknown how much revenue would be generated.
If a business chooses not to participate, the city would estimate a fee for the business and tack on a 10 percent penalty and an additional 1 percent in interest. There would be an appeals process for businesses.
POLL: SOME LIKE IDEA, OTHERS DON’T
Reaction to the idea was mixed Thursday at Paul’s Food Center on Congress Street, though most people agreed that a fee would make them change their behavior.
Phillie Bartlett, 45, of Cumberland Avenue did some quick math as a cashier put his items in a handful of bags. If he spent 50 cents a week on bags, that would work out to $26 a year.
“That’s a minimum of a half a case of Heineken,” he said.
If bags weren’t free, Bartlett said, he would likely bring his own, including plastic bags from retailers like Renys, which would be exempt from the fee.
Dennis Pineau, 69, simply opposed the bag fee. “I can’t afford any more,” he said.
Kristie Collins, 34, of Ocean Avenue said the fee would be a good way to reduce plastic that harms the environment.
She paid 99 cents for a reusable bag for her groceries Thursday, and she usually pays 10 cents a bag at Save-A-Lot, a discount grocery store downtown that already charges for plastic bags, so she can carry her baby’s diapers.
“I think it’s necessary. A lot of people misuse resources and don’t recycle,” Collins said.
POTENTIAL BENEFITS, DRAWBACKS
Ecomaine, the nonprofit waste management company that’s owned and operated by 21 municipalities in southern Maine, accepts plastic bags in its recycling program. But Chief Executive Officer Kevin Roche said in a letter to the city that recycling the bags is more trouble than it’s worth.
“The bags get wrapped around equipment and have to be removed daily,” Roche wrote. “The marketability of the bags can be an issue. There are very few markets and the value of the material is very low.”
The Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association has fought the idea of bag fees at the state level. Shelly Doak, the group’s executive director, says that even a 10-cent-a-bag fee in Portland would cause people to shop in nearby communities.
Doak said the ordinance is unnecessary and the focus should be on educating customers and businesses.
An effort five years ago to impose a statewide fee led to a requirement that grocery stores take back plastic bags and promote the use of reusable bags, and those efforts have reduced the use of single-use bags, said Doak.
Cathy Ramsdell, a member of the Green Packaging Working Group and executive director of the Friends of Casco Bay, said she doesn’t think education alone is enough to solve the problem.
Wayward plastic bags get tangled in trees and fences, and can affect the image of a city, she said. More important, she said, floating plastic bags can mimic the movements of jellyfish and be ingested by marine animals.
“Now might be the time to take it a step further and make it a little more painful for people so they will change their habits,” she said.
SIMILAR EFFORT WAS CONTENTIOUS
The Green Packaging Working Group is composed of residents, environmentalists and representatives of industry groups. It was formed last year to draft a ban on plastic foam, and to consider an ordinance restricting the use of disposable plastic bags.
The process was contentious, with industry groups and businesses fighting the effort. The Maine Restaurant Association and the Maine Innkeepers Association co-signed a letter by Gov. Paul LePage and a national conservative group calling the measure an example of “nanny-state European-style bans.”
The City Council began to raise questions about the ordinance. Facing defeat, the ordinance was referred back to the council’s Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee, which has yet to take up the measure.
That acrimony has prompted members such as Ramsdell to wonder whether working on a plastic bag ordinance would be a waste of time.
“I found those meetings (on plastic foam) to be some of the most frustrating of my career,” she said.
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: