AUGUSTA — Lawmakers heard lengthy testimony Monday on bills that would make Maine the latest state to charge consumers for disposable plastic bags.
The Legislature’s Environmental and Natural Resources Committee held the hearing roughly three weeks before Portland will begin requiring retailers to collect a nickel for each disposable plastic or paper bag customers take at the checkout counter.
Scores of communities across the country charge bag fees as a way to encourage consumers to bring their own reusable bags and to reduce plastic pollution. Portland is the first Maine community to adopt a fee, although officials in several other municipalities are considering following the city’s lead.
Three bills pending before the Legislature – L.D.s 325, 396 and 680 – would require retailers to collect 5 cents for each disposable plastic bag, although the bills have slight differences, such as in how the proceeds would be used.
L.D. 680 would also charge a fee for disposable paper bags. Unlike plastic bags, paper bags typically don’t contain petroleum, but critics contend they still have more of a “carbon footprint” than reusable bags.
“I get it that Mainers don’t like change, but I think this is a change that appeals to our Yankee spirit of avoiding waste and our love of our state’s natural beauty and wildlife,” said Rep. Janice Cooper, D-Yarmouth, the sponsor of L.D. 396. “It is a change we can all live with.”
Democrat Rep. Michael Devin of Newcastle, who is sponsoring L.D. 325, said his bill proposes a 5-cent fee, but he would support amending the bill to ban disposable plastic bags altogether.
Maine law already requires retailers that use plastic bags to offer receptacles where the bags can be recycled. But countless numbers of the non-biodegradable bags end up in trees, in sewer drains and ultimately in Maine’s lakes, rivers and ocean waters.
A large number of environmental and conservation organizations – including the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Maine Audubon and the Surfrider Foundation – support the efforts to charge fees for disposable bags.
Critics contend that the fees amount to an additional tax on consumers, force retailers to make costly upgrades to their registers and slow down the checkout process. Also, the bag fees cannot be charged to the swipe cards used by recipients of food stamps, so those consumers would have to pay out of pocket.
The bills appear unlikely to both pass in the Legislature and get signed by Gov. Paul LePage.
Opponents at Monday’s hearing included the Maine Restaurant Association, the New England Convenience Store Association, the Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association and the Maine Farm Bureau Association.
Melanie Loyzim, director of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management, said the bills would only create a new regulatory burden on stores and the department. Instead, the state should continue to promote recycling and educate consumers, she said.
“Fees can have some effect but they should not be imposed where our most economically vulnerable citizens will be the ones most impacted,” Loyzim said. “Wastefulness is not our way and litter discolors our landscape. But there are better ways for us to do more positive things for the people for Maine than by making it more expensive for our working families and retirees to buy goods from Maine businesses.”
A large number of students from Warsaw Middle School – part of School Administrative District 53 in Burnham, Detroit and Pittsfield – made the trip to Augusta to testify on the bills as part of a class project.
More than 130 communities across the country have adopted disposable bag fees ranging from 5 cents to 25 cents for each bag, or have banned plastic bags. California’s legislature passed a statewide ban last year, although bag and plastics manufacturers are organizing a referendum campaign to overturn the ban at the ballot box in November 2016.