SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council is poised to replicate the Portland ordinance that bans the use of polystyrene and levies a 5-cent fee on one-time-use paper and plastic shopping bags.
Mayor Linda Cohen said the ordinance will duplicate word for word the terms of Portland’s ordinance, which became effective April 15 and was designed to cut down on litter and reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in Casco Bay and beyond. The bag fee applies to stores that derive 2 percent or more of their revenue from food sales.
“You find plastic bags floating all around the city,” said Cohen. “And you just can’t recycle those bags. It’s time to do it.”
The bag fee and polystyrene ban were the subject of a council workshop last week, and although only four of the seven councilors were in attendance, Cohen said she expects there to be little push-back.
Barring any major opposition, the council could schedule public hearings on the ordinance and vote on it within the next six weeks, Cohen said.
“Then there’s going to be a huge education effort that’s going to have to be launched,” Cohen said.
The Portland ordinance was passed after negotiations between city officials and the local business community.
Although merchants and the state’s grocers lobby opposed the idea, those groups negotiated a provision that allows business owners to keep the nickel that they collect for each bag.
That tactic puts the onus on shoppers, not business owners, to bear the cost of using one-time-use bags instead of durable, reusable shopping bags.
Banning polystyrene, on the other hand, poses the greatest direct cost to business owners. The lightweight, inexpensive plastic is a good insulator and is cheaper than other packing materials.
Alternative to-go boxes made of cardboard or recycled material are generally more expensive, raising the possibility of merchants choosing to pass that cost on to the consumer.
For that reason, Cohen said any roll-out of the bag fee and polystyrene ban would likely happen with a long lead time, so businesses can adapt.
“It shouldn’t be anything that totally surprises them, because it’s happening. We’ll phase it in. My request is that we phase in the Styrofoam ban over a little bit longer (period) than the bag fee,” she said.
Already, more than 230 South Portland businesses that have food licenses and could potentially be affected have been notified of the council’s interest in passing the ordinance, said Julie Rosenbach, South Portland’s sustainability coordinator.
Rosenbach said that in the early conversations she’s had with business owners, they are less concerned about whether the fee and ban are coming as they are about when the changes will be implemented.
Businesses could have at least six months to prepare for the change, she said, although the exact timing will be up to the council.
Shelley Doak, president of the Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association, said she believes six to eight months is not enough time for some businesses to adjust.
Doak was critical of placing fees on consumers, but said it was too early to take a position on the South Portland councilors’ discussions.
“We’re monitoring the discussions, as we are in other communities, and we’re appreciative that they’re in touch with our organization,” Doak said.
At least one local grocer is ready for the switch, although he was quick to acknowledge the pros and cons of the issue.
Alan Cardinal, owner of Smaha’s Legion Square Market in Knightville, acknowledged that it is not ideal to suddenly charge people for what used to be free, but he also knows that concerns about the environmental impact of the bags is legitimate.
“If it eventually gets us out of having all this debris flying around, I guess its a good thing,” Cardinal said.
One of his customers agreed.
Christian Sparling of Broadway in South Portland, who was shopping Friday with his daughter, Violet, said he felt good about the ordinance coming to South Portland.
“I think a tax to decrease excessive waste is a viable way to decrease use” of the bags, he said.
Before he checked out, Sparling darted out of the store and back to his car, returning with a bright orange re-usable bag.