A Portland committee voted Wednesday to recommend that the city ban food and beverage containers made from plastic foam but postponed a decision on whether to impose a fee on consumers who use disposable plastic grocery bags.

The 3-1 vote to endorse prohibiting most retailers from using polystyrene foam – commonly known as Styrofoam – came nearly two years after the Portland City Council first directed the city’s Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee to craft a ban as a way to reduce litter.

The issue will now go back to the City Council for consideration.

“We are a coastal community,” said committee member and City Councilor Jon Hinck. “Our identity has been (tied) to the marine environment for a long time and this polystyrene is inevitably ending up in the marine environment, where it is problematic.”

Some city restaurant and coffee shop owners have opposed the ban, saying it would add to their costs without addressing the underlying problem: a blatant disregard for the environment by people who litter. Unlike past meetings when business owners showed up in force, however, only a few business groups spoke Wednesday evening.

If approved as drafted, existing businesses that use polystyrene would be initially exempted for an undetermined amount of time to allow them to change to different packaging. The ban would take effect on July 1, 2015, and would also apply to city government and all city contractors.

A small but growing number of cities and towns across the country – including San Francisco and Portland, Ore. – have passed ordinances banning polystyrene.

Representatives from the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Retail Association of Maine, the Maine Innkeepers Association and the DART Container Corp. opposed the polystyrene ban. City Councilor Cheryl Leeman was the only committee member to vote against moving forward with the proposal.

“You can’t legislate human behavior,” Leeman said prior to the vote. “You can ban polystyrene but that is not going to solve the problem. The problem here is people who are throwing their trash into the streams or into the sewers.”

Polystyrene is a type of foam made from petrochemicals that is commonly used in coffee cups, take-out food containers and other products. Many types of polystyrene are recyclable, but few communities around the country offer recycling. Plastic foam products generally are not bio-degradable.

Committee members decided they needed at least one more meeting to work on another controversial proposal: to either ban or impose a fee on disposable plastic shopping bags.

The three committee members who supported the polystyrene ban – Hinck, David Marshall and Kevin Donoghue – appeared to support requiring retailers to collect a fee from consumers who opt for plastic bags. Leeman indicated that she would probably not support a fee.

The majority of councilors appeared to agree on exempting dry cleaners and restaurants from the fee as well as making clear that no fee will be collected on the thin, plastic bags used to isolate vegetables or meat from other groceries.

Committee members were still debating how large a fee to impose (both 5 cents and 10 cents were discussed), whether it should also apply to disposable paper bags and whether the retailer should be allowed to keep the entire amount.

Councilors directed the committee’s counsel to draft new language for consideration at the next meeting.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:kmiller@pressherald.com