Portland has joined a growing number of U.S. communities where consumers are being charged a fee for disposable shopping bags.

But the program that takes effect Wednesday differs from most of the 150 or so other initiatives around the country in two key ways that could limit its impact: The fee is relatively small, and the revenue it generates will stay with the retailer rather than being used to pay for educational or environmental programs.

City officials and environmental groups believe that instituting a 5-cent fee on every paper or plastic bag taken from the checkout line at grocery and convenience stores is a good first step toward reducing the amount of litter along roads and in the ocean. Plastic bags are a special concern. Because they don’t degrade, the bags can get into storm drains, where they clog sewer intake screens, and into waterways, where they can harm wildlife.

After more than a year of study, the City Council voted last June to enact the fee. The fee applies to paper or plastic bags taken from checkout lines at stores that generate more than 2 percent of their revenue from food sales.

A ban on polystyrene containers used by food stores and restaurants also takes effect Wednesday.

Customers shopping at nearly 500 businesses could be affected by the bag fee or the ban on plastic foam, said Jessica Grondin, City Hall’s communications director.

Businesses are required to itemize the bag fees on their receipts and post signs informing customers about the new fee. They also must keep records going back three years to prove to the city that they are in compliance.

“Staff will spot-check compliance and we will respond to resident complaints of non-compliance by following up with the reported business,” Grondin said.

FIVE-CENT BAG FEE LOWER THAN MOST

The city’s Green Packaging Working Group initially considered a 10-cent per bag fee, with as much as 6 cents being paid to the city for educational programs and environmental cleanup efforts. But that fee was reduced to 5 cents by a City Council subcommittee and businesses were allowed to keep the revenue, compromises that were considered necessary to ease opposition to the proposal.

“By not having any of the money coming to the city, it removed a lot of the objections,” said City Councilor Edward Suslovic, who chaired the working group.

The fees don’t apply to bags provided by pharmacists for prescription drugs or small bags used to carry produce or meats.

Richard Giles, of Cumberland Avenue, understands why the city would enact a bag fee to reduce litter, but said 5 cents a bag is too much. Even so, he said it isn’t enough to get him to change his habits.

“I’ll probably just suck it up,” said Giles, who clutched one plastic bag Monday while standing outside Paul’s Food Center on Congress Street. “If it was 10 cents, I would probably start bringing a reusable bag.”

Most bag fees around the country are 10 cents, said Melissa Gates, Northeast regional manager for the Surfrider Foundation, a California nonprofit advocacy group that pushed for the foam ban and bag fees in Portland. Typically, bag fees are split between businesses and a city, which usually puts its share of the revenue toward litter-reduction efforts, Gates said.

Communities such as Capitola, California, have enacted fees as high as 25 cents per bag, she said.

“It is thought that the higher the fee, the higher the incentive will be for consumers to bring a reusable bag,” Gates said in an email.

Portland’s 5-cent fee is among the lowest in the U.S., Gates said.

Environmentalists in Washington, D.C., have boasted that a 5-cent bag fee has resulted in a 60 percent drop in bag usage since the fee took effect in 2010. However, The Washington Post reported on Jan. 9, 2014, that the city, which receives 3 cents or 4 cents per bag, has not seen a decrease in revenue generated from the bags, pulling in $150,000 to $200,000 a month – money that is devoted to cleaning up the Anacostia River.

The steady revenue stream indicates consumers have not been using more reusable bags and instead are simply paying the fee for disposables.

In Portland, Save-A-Lot has been charging 10 cents a bag at its store in the Union Station Shopping Plaza on St. John Street for the past 15 years, said store manager Cleve Hoffman.

Hoffman said the plastic bags used at the store are thicker than those you would find at other grocery stores and that customers often reuse them. Customers can avoid the fee by requesting a cardboard box, he said.

Despite having a fee that is twice as high as the city’s, Hoffman estimated that 80 percent of his customers continue to purchase bags on a regular basis.

“Our prices are so good it more than makes up for the price of the bag,” he said.

WILL CONSUMER BEHAVIOR CHANGE?

Environmental advocates, however, are optimistic that more people will choose to not purchase disposable bags and instead will get in the habit of carrying around reusable bags.

“I’m excited Portland took this bold move,” said Cathy Ramsdell, executive director of the Friends of Casco Bay, a nonprofit that advocates for clean water policies.

Ramsdell would have liked the city to have retained a portion of the fee for environmental cleanup projects or purchasing reusable bags for low-income people, but she appreciates the need to compromise.

If the program doesn’t work as expected, Ramsdell said the city could always consider increasing the fee in the future.

“We had to start somewhere and this was a good place to start,” she said.

Large stores, like Hannaford Supermarkets, are taking the new programs in stride. Hannaford has been giving away free reusable bags ahead of the implementation and is donating the money from its disposable bag fees to charity.

Some smaller businesses, however, are hoping that the new revenue from selling disposable bags will help offset the increase in costs associated with the ban on polystyrene containers.

Businesses such as Moran’s Market on Forest Avenue are seeing container prices at least double as they switch from plastic foam to paper alternatives for soups, salads and hamburger meals.

Store co-owner Paul Larson hopes the additional revenue from the disposable bags can help offset those increases. He estimated that a plastic bag costs him less than a penny.

“A lot of people already decline bags, so it’s not like I’m going to make a lot out of it, but that will help offset that (cost) a little bit,” he said.

Sarah Lakeman, of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said that with the new system in place, it’s up to consumers to change their behavior or pay more at the register.

“I think it is going to work,” said Lakeman, who also thinks the compromise is a good starting point. “I think it will result in fewer bags being used. I think it will change behavior.”


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