FREEPORT — Voters approved a townwide ban on disposable plastic shopping bags Tuesday, joining a number of Maine communities putting restrictions on the items.
Residents approved the ban 804-501, about 62 percent in favor. Roughly 20 percent of registered voters in Freeport voted on the issue.
Residents also voted 1,091-168 to change the town’s charter to allow residents to freely circulate petitions for citizen initiatives, but the measure failed because not enough voters participated in the election to legally change the charter, Town Clerk Christine Wolfe said.
Come Sept. 12, the bag ban will prohibit grocery and convenience stores from offering thin, disposable plastic bags and place a 5-cent fee on paper shopping bags. The ban won’t affect retailers.
Activists collected more than 860 signatures through a citizens’ referendum to put the ban on the June ballot, replacing a non-binding referendum from the town council on a 5-cent fee instead of a ban.
Advocates of the bag ban say plastic is not biodegradable, creates litter and is especially harmful to sensitive marine ecosystems. In July 2015t, the town’s Solid Waste and Recycling Committee recommended banning disposable plastic bags, noting evidence of microplastics in the water column and in marine organisms.
Reducing or eliminating plastic bags within 30 miles of the coast is “recognized as an effective solution to mitigate the impacts of plastics entering the marine environment,” the committee said.
In a 2014 survey of almost 800 Freeport voters, 69 percent supported a ban on disposable plastic bags and 67 percent supported a ban on plastic bags entirely. Bow Street Market, one of two local supermarkets, stopped offering plastic bags last year.
Freeport has been debating a bag ban since 2014, when two high school seniors studied the issue. Other communities – including Portland, South Portland and Freeport – have put 5-cent fees on plastic bags, and last year York became the first Maine town to enact a bag ban. Kennebunk also approved a plastic bag ban Tuesday.
The charter amendment would have allowed residents to freely circulate petitions to put a referendum on the municipal ballot. The charter requires people to sign a petition in the presence of a town clerk, a stipulation town officials believe conflicts with state law. The amendment failed, however, because the number of voters participating in the election did not reach 30 percent of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election, Wolfe said. That threshold is set by state law.
Only 1,307 voters participated, shy of the necessary 1,413. The proposal will likely be put on the November ballot, when a larger turnout is expected, Wolfe said.