The Portland City Council on Monday will consider a pair of anti-litter proposals – including a 5-cent fee on disposable shopping bags – that would put the city at the leading edge of the “green packaging” push, but which opponents warn could harm businesses.
After months of debate at the committee level, the full council will hear public comments on a proposal to require retail stores where food represents 2 percent or more of sales to charge consumers a nickel for each plastic or paper shopping bag. A second proposed ordinance would prohibit restaurants and retailers from using polystyrene foam food and beverage containers.
Supporters claim the ordinances will clean up the city’s waterways while reducing costs incurred whenever public works crews must remove tangles of plastic bags and other trash obstructing culverts and treatment-plant intake screens.
If both policies are enacted, Portland would become the first community in Maine to impose a surcharge on disposable bags and one of the first in New England to regulate both bags and polystyrene coffee cups and take-out containers.
“This would definitely set Portland apart as a leader for green packaging and sustainability,” said Melissa Gates, Northeast regional coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation, a California-based organization involved in water quality and beach access issues nationwide.
The ordinances have faced strong opposition from business groups, however.
Barbara Anania, who along with her husband, Ed, runs two Anania’s Variety stores in Portland, said the bag fee would require her employees to collect money for every bag used to wrap their take-out subs, fries and other food. Those nickels add up when a customer is, say, picking up a half-dozen individually wrapped sandwiches for co-workers, she said.
Anania said her stores already offer customers three choices for their 16-ounce drinks: polystyrene, paper or reusable “travel” mugs. Customers choose polystyrene by a 4-to-1 margin, she said, because many people find it retains heat better.
“It just seems like a nanny state where there are all of these regulations for packaging food and what we are charging our customers,” said Anania, who also runs a store in South Portland. “And I think in these economic times, it does affect the customer.”
At least 120 municipalities or counties around the country have passed ordinances either imposing fees or banning disposable bags, according to a list compiled by the Surfrider Foundation. Far fewer communities ban foam containers. However, Maine state government has prohibited the use of polystyrene by food service companies at state-owned facilities since the early 1990s. And Freeport prohibited retailers from using polystyrene soon after the state’s ban took effect.
In Portland, retailers would be allowed to keep the money from the 5-cent fee on plastic and paper bags, although it would be considered taxable revenue by the state. Restaurants, dry cleaners and farmers’ markets would be exempt from collecting the bag fees.
The bag fee is proposed to take effect on April 15, 2015. The ban on foam containers is proposed to take effect on July 1, 2015. But the council could change those dates.
City Councilor Ed Suslovic, who led a task force that examined the foam and bag proposals, has said he believes it is appropriate for Portland to be pushing the “green packaging” issue given its waterfront location and reputation for sustainability. Suslovic said he believes the council will vote to approve the ordinances on Monday. The council’s Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee endorsed both proposals by separate 3-1 votes.
“Lots of compromises were made, so I think the majority of the council will support them,” Suslovic said.
On Sunday, the Surfrider Foundation and the Natural Resources Council of Maine held a waterfront cleanup event along Portland’s Back Cove in an event timed to coincide with the City Council meeting. The organizations also are urging their members to attend the public hearing.
But business groups opposed to the ordinances are also rallying their members.
Both Anania and Curtis Picard with the Maine Retail Association said they believe the bigger source of waterway pollution is trash blowing out of recycling containers.
“We think a better solution is Portland should invest in lids on recycling containers or educating consumers,” Picard said. “Because both of these ordinances are coming at once, we feel it’s a one-two punch to the business community and low-income residents.”
Chris O’Neil, who represents the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce on policy issues before the City Council, said changes to the bag fee proposal have made it more palatable to businesses. But the Chamber still opposes both ordinances.
“We are not predicting the end of the world, but we are just calling into question the necessity and the usefulness of these regulations,” O’Neil said.
The City Council meeting is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. Monday in council chambers at City Hall.