BRUNSWICK — Bring Your Own Bag, a citizens’ group, is preparing petitions to impose a 5-cent tax on every plastic bag issued to customers by businesses in Topsham and Brunswick.
The effort follows Portland’s move to a similar tax that went into effect April 15 and a proposed outright ban in Freeport.
Marcia Harrington, co-founder of BYOB, said she knows personally that a bag-ban can work. Originally a resident of Maryland, Harrington moved to Maine three years ago and was surprised there were no bans or fees in Maine. “We had it there, and it worked so well,” she said.
Harrington got involved with the group after she testified in Portland during its pursuit of a bag fee. Now, a group of 15 people is regularly meeting to pursue reduced use of plastic bags in Brunswick.
“The group is going to be going business to business starting with Maine Street Brunswick and talking with business owners one on one, to get their ideas and also get their feedback,” said Harrington. “You can’t just do these things over night.”
The central issue, at least from Harrington’s standpoint, is the massive amount of pollution that plastic bags and products cause. The lightweight material blows around easily, and can eventually end up in the ocean.
“There’s some phenomenal number, like 270,000 tons in the ocean,” said Harrington. “I went to Belize recently, and I found a plastic bag wrapped around a piece of coral.”
A key argument against plastic bags is related to many of their benefits: They’re light, durable, and cheap. While that makes them a useful product as a bag, it also means they never decay, and cause large amounts of pollution.
While facts from studies performed by the United Nations Environment Programme and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration vary, it is hard to ignore the very real presence of plastic bags stuck in trees or blowing across beaches in the midcoast.
Bringyourownbag.info features a photo gallery of plastic bags members have found in trees, clogging up drains, and littering sidewalks. “Plastic bags in particular, create litter, create trash, they easily fly around and end up in trees and the roadside,” said BYOB co-founder Averil Fessenden.
In addition to reducing the use of plastic bags, the group is also pursuing a ban on Styrofoam containers and paper bags as well. Styrofoam, similar to the plastic bags, doesn’t decay and often breaks apart into tiny pieces, littering the sides of roadways and rivers.
“That’s also our problem with it, it falls apart and ends up in a million little pieces beside the river,” said Harrington.
Freeport was used as an example of how a ban on Styrofoam can work, as the town has had a ban on the products for 25 years now.
The real solution to plastic bag use, and the central idea behind BYOB, is to bring a reusable fabric bag when shopping.
“The trick for people is to put the bags in their car, keep a couple bags in whichever car you do your shopping in,” said Harrington.
Access to reusable bags is also being taken care of, according to Fessenden. A number of local businesses have donated bags to anyone who may not be able to afford the initial expense.
“In terms of making reusable bags available, Hannaford gave away bags for the two weeks prior to the ordinance (in Portland),” said Fessenden. “There will likely to be some very good sources of bags, for anyone who feels it might be difficult to afford reusable bags.”
Eliminating plastic bags altogether is something that could be pursued in the future, after fees make people more comfortable with the idea of reducing their use, Fesseden said. “In Ireland, they’ve been doing this for a really long time,” said Fessenden. “It’s worked out really well, it’s become part of the culture there.”
Efforts are already under way in Freeport. The Freeport Town Council voted unanimously April 14 in favor of pursuing restrictions on plastic bags, and Bow Street Market has already pledged to stop using the product.
“The plastic issues in Freeport are particularly acute because of our marine environment,” said District 3 Councilor Kristina Egan. “I would be supportive of doing something a little more aggressive on the plastic side.”
Freeport has been considering measures against plastic bags ever since Freeport High School students Meredith Broderick and Elly Bengtsson brought the issue to the town council last July.
“Disposable bags are the number one consumable item in the world. There are approximately 5 billion plastic bags distributed each year,” said Broderick at the meeting.
According to Egan, the response in Freeport has overall been to implement a ban or fees.
“I also hope that we can do this more quickly. That the council can actually adopt something, an ordinance, sometime in the next few months,” said Egan. “We heard resounding public opinion, both through all the emails that we got and here tonight from all of you about how important this is to our residents for our future generations and for the environment.”
So far, the concept hasn’t moved any further up the coast. Kennebec Estuary Land Trust Executive Director Carrie Kinne said she hasn’t heard about any efforts in Bath, and Damariscotta Town Manager Matt Lutkus said he hasn’t heard about any effort to pursue a fee in his town either.
“I have not heard anybody comment on that at all here,” said Lutkus. “The selectmen haven’t indicated any desire to legislate.”
But if ongoing efforts in Brunswick and Freeport are any indication, that may change soon.