Friday, April 18, 2014
PORTLAND – Gov. Paul LePage and a national conservative group have come out against a proposed ban on plastic-foam products in Maine's largest city.
The proposal would prohibit the use of polystyrene containers by food vendors and food retailers, and at city-sponsored and city-contracted events starting July 1, 2015.
A task force formed by the City Council presented the proposal to the council's Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee on Wednesday. The committee took no position and plans to study the idea further.
Supporters of the ban say the petroleum-based material creates environmental problems, but LePage and other opponents of the ban sent a letter to the City Council this week saying the proposal is an example of "nanny-state" overregulation.
LePage co-signed the letter opposing the proposed ban. His spokeswoman would not comment on the governor's position Wednesday.
Other co-signers include two conservative advocacy groups, the Maine Heritage Policy Center and the Washington, D.C.-based Cost of Government Center, which is affiliated with Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform.
The Maine Restaurant Association, the Maine Innkeepers Association and the Maine Course Hospitality Group also signed the letter, which describes the proposed ban as a "reckless measure" that would add costs to local businesses and "kill jobs." The group contends the ban is not supported by scientific evidence.
"Nanny-state European-style bans are not the best course of action given the financial impact and lack of scientific evidence used by environmentalists with a political agenda," the letter says. "Scare tactics can be a strong motivator for regulations and restrictions, despite the negligence of economic or health harms associated with them."
Although it is unusual for a governor to weigh in on a municipal ordinance, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said, "I am glad to get input from the governor and other organizations that have signed off on this letter. ... This is a policy that we're going to be looking at very closely because of the environmental effects it could have on the city."
The National Institute for Health includes styrene -–which is used to make polystyrene – on a list of substances "reasonably considered to be human carcinogens."
But Troy Moon, the city's environmental programs and open-space manager, said the ban is being pursued because polystyrene is a common form of litter that cannot be recycled locally.
The city's task force voted 9-6 in favor of recommending a ban, with the majority saying that polystyrene recycling is not yet feasible for ecomaine, the public cooperative that handles Portland's waste disposal.
"Representatives of the plastics industry explained there is technology available to recycle polystyrene foam. At this time, however, ecomaine reports that including this material in its offerings is not economically or operationally practical," the majority report says.
The majority report says polystyrene is a common source of litter in Portland and is not biodegradeable. It breaks down into smaller pieces and gets into waterways, where it is mistaken for food by wildlife, say supporters of the ban.
"As polystyrene foam cannot be digested, the animals that eat it eventually die from starvation," the report says.
The majority also cited the success of a similar ordinance in Freeport, which adopted it in 1990, and noted that 100 U.S. cities have either adopted bans or are considering bans on polystyrene.
Portland's task force also surveyed 24 local businesses, and the majority said they would be able to find alternative paper packaging that could be recycled.
The dissenting task force members, including representatives of business interests, drafted an eight-page minority report outlining their opposition.
The minority report says that polystyrene can in fact be recycled -- if not locally, then elsewhere -- and turned into low-cost insulation.
The opposition is based partly on the increased costs to businesses and the process by which the proposal was adopted.
"This was not a deliberative body that examined and weighed all the relevant evidence associated with this issue," the minority report says. "Rather, this was a hollow proceeding designed to arrive at an intended result."
The minority also contends that the ordinance would not accomplish the stated goal of reducing litter: "Litter is a people problem, not a materials problem."
Proposed fines for violating the ordinance range from a maximum of $250 for the first offense within a one-year period to a maximum of $500 for each subsequent offense in a one-year period.
Exemptions would be available if food vendors could prove "undue hardship" from the ordinance.
The city manager could allow polystyrene to be used in "an emergency for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health or safety."
Portland schools instituted a policy last year against using polystyrene food trays. Food service director Ron Adams said costs tripled -- from 3 cents a tray to 9 cents a tray -- when the district switched.
City Councilor David Marshall, chairman of the Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee, said he expects the proposed ban to attract a lot of attention.
"I'm not at all surprised to see the different interest groups lining up on this," he said.
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: