September 18, 2013

Portland pulls proposed ban of plastic foam containers

By Kelley Bouchard
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – The City Council withdrew a controversial proposal late Monday that would ban the use of plastic foam containers for retail food sales and service.

click image to enlarge

Dunkin' Donuts shops in Freeport and Brookline, Mass., have rolled out new paper cups designed to mimic plastic foam. The Portland City Council withdrew a controversial proposal late Monday, Sept. 16, 2013 that would ban the use of plastic foam containers for retail food sales and service.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

Councilor David Marshall said he hoped to address concerns raised by councilors and members of the public "so we can put together a better ordinance and pass it."

One concern raised by several speakers during the public hearing is the fact that the proposed ban wouldn't specifically exempt plastic foam boxes used by seafood shippers.

Some councilors questioned the language, scope and justification of the proposed ordinance.

"How much (plastic foam) is out there?" asked Councilor Cheryl Leeman. "The supporting data is not there."

Councilor Edward Suslovic disputed claims that the ban isn't warranted. "This is far more than a feel-good measure," he said.

During the hearing, supporters of the ban said plastic foam is a common form of litter in Portland that isn't biodegradable or readily recyclable. They said it breaks down into smaller pieces and particles that get into waterways and the ocean, where it's ingested by and hurts wildlife and marine life.

"Taking it out of the system is a smart idea," said Anthony Zeli, a homeowner in the Bayside neighborhood who was one of at least five people who spoke in favor of the ban.

About a dozen people spoke against the ban. Opponents, including several representatives of businesses that make or use plastic foam containers, questioned the ban's goals and language. Some called it a business tax because paper and other alternative packaging will cost more.

"(A ban) should be a last resort," said Lionel Levesque, a Portland resident who manages the Cumberland Farms convenience store on Brighton Avenue. "Why not focus on increasing recycling?"

The ban, which would take effect on July 1, 2015, would apply to all food vendors, city departments and city contractors, and at all city-sponsored events. It would apply to prepared foods and fresh meats, fish, eggs and other produce packaged in the city.

It also would prevent local retailers from selling plastic foam cups, plates and other food containers intended for personal use, though it wouldn't ban personal or wholesale use.

Proposed fines for violating the ban would be a maximum of $250 for the first offense within a one-year period and a maximum of $500 for each subsequent offense in a one-year period.

The proposed ban has been in the works since March, when a "green packaging" task force began looking for ways to reduce litter and the city's waste stream.

While opponents of the ban say plastic foam is recyclable, the task force voted 9-6 to recommend it, in part because plastic foam recycling is not yet feasible for ecomaine, a cooperative of 21 southern Maine municipalities that processes Portland's trash.

Troy Moon, the city's environmental programs and open-space manager, has said that the ban was pursued because plastic foam is a common form of litter in Portland that cannot be recycled locally.

Gov. Paul LePage wrote to the City Council this summer to oppose the ban as a "European-style" policy and a "nanny state" approach.

His letter was signed by Maine hospitality industry groups and the Cost of Government Center, a conservative group affiliated with the anti-tax Americans for Tax Reform group, headed by Grover Norquist.

The task force surveyed 24 local businesses and found that many used a combination of paper, plastic, plastic foam and metal food packaging. A majority said they would be able to find alternative paper packaging that could be recycled.

Portland schools instituted a policy last year against using plastic foam lunch trays. Food service director Ron Adams said costs tripled -- from 3 cents a tray to 9 cents a tray -- when the district switched.

More than 100 cities and counties across the United States have banned the use of plastic foam packaging, including Freeport, which adopted its ban in 1990, as well as San Francisco, Brookline, Mass., and Portland, Ore.

The National Institutes of Health includes styrene -- a component of plastic foam -- on a list of substances "reasonably considered to be human carcinogens."

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

Twitter: @KelleyBouchard


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