FALMOUTH — A ban on plastic shopping bags took a step forward Monday when the Town Council received a report and recommendations that suggest phasing in restrictions over two years.

The Recycling and Energy Advisory Committee was tasked last year with researching the topic and coming to the town with recommendation.

In the first year, REAC proposes mirroring the city of Portland, where beginning April 15 there will be a 5-cent fee on paper and plastic bags. In the second year and beyond, minus some exceptions, single-use plastic bags will be banned, and the 5-cent fee will remain on paper bags.

Exceptions to the plastic bag ban would include dry cleaners, pharmacies, and bags for meat and produce that have a “perceived safety issue,”REAC Co-Chairman John Haley said.

Haley said the 5-cent fee would be placed on paper bags because they cost more for retailers to buy, and customers will just use those bags if there is a fee on plastic, but none on paper.

“We don’t want this to be a punishment on the retailer,” he said.

The long-term goals, Haley said, include reducing plastic debris in the environment, raising environmental awareness in the community, and encouraging a paradigm shift away from single-use plastic bags to reusable bags.

Preliminary research by REAC, Haley said, shows that the town’s three largest retailers – Shaw’s, Hannaford, and Wal-Mart – each distribute nearly 56,000 plastic bags per month, which the committee extrapolated to 2 million plastic bags annually from just three stores.

“It’s quite startling …,” Councilor Sean Mahoney said. “That’s an enormous amount of plastic.”

Haley said the bags degrade and are eaten by marine life, and end up clogging storm-water culverts and town water-management equipment.

“I doubt any one of us hasn’t seen a plastic bag outside,” Haley said.

The bags also are a problem at the recycling facility operated by ecomaine, the nonprofit waste management company owned and operated by Falmouth and 19 other communities. Councilors Claudia King and Russell Anderson said the plastic bags are so light they don’t go where they are supposed to and end up clogging ecomaine’s sorting machines.

The REAC recommendations are based on two polls, one taken at the polls last Election Day and another online, which found a majority of residents favored some kind of movement towards reusable bags.

Anderson said he calculated if the 5-cent fee were to stand, just the three largest retailers alone would generate “$100,000 of new revenue,” which he said could be put toward providing reusable bags to residents.

“There’s a lot of ways you could get creative about the transition,” he said.

Haley said the council should do its own research to finalize details of an ordinance based on the recommendations. He said the council should look at the fees associated with paper and plastic bags, decide what penalties there should be for not complying and how to enforce them, figuring out the effective time of the ordinance, and deciding who to apply the rules.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

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