A group of Brunswick and Topsham residents launched a campaign Tuesday to have businesses begin charging shoppers a nickel for every disposable bag, mounting the latest push in Maine to use fees to encourage more shoppers to switch to reusable bags.

Members of the group Bring Your Own Bag – MidCoast announced their proposal six months after Portland became the first community in Maine to require retailers to collect a 5-cent fee for single-use plastic and paper bags. The group has enlisted at least two Brunswick Town Council members to sponsor a similar proposal as well as a proposed ban on polystyrene foam food and beverage containers. Topsham residents involved in the organization, meanwhile, hope to present an identical proposal at next spring’s Topsham town meeting.

Gathered in the Brunswick Town Commons gazebo on a rainy fall morning, BYOB-MidCoast members said they modeled their proposal after the bag fee and the polystyrene ban that took effect in Portland on April 15, but with one key difference. Portland’s ordinance applies largely to grocery and convenience stores, but the Brunswick and Topsham bag fee proposals would capture all businesses except dry cleaners, restaurants and businesses that reuse disposable plastic bags.

“This is for reasons of common sense and fairness,” said Marcia Harrington, co-founder of BYOB-MidCoast, which has gathered more than 1,000 signatures from local residents in support of the proposals. “After all, if disposable bags are expensive to society and a scourge on the environment, we should discourage their use everywhere. We also feel it is unfair to allow some stores to give them out freely while other stores have to charge a nickel.”

SOME RESISTANCE TO THE CHANGES

More than 130 communities across the country – from small towns to major cities such as Washington, D.C. – have adopted disposable bag fees ranging from 5 cents to 25 cents for each bag, or have banned plastic bags. Portland became the first Maine community to impose fees on plastic and paper disposable shopping bags and to ban polystyrene foam – often called Styrofoam – food and beverage containers. Identical policies will take effect in South Portland next March, and similar proposals for fees or outright bans on single-use plastic bags are now on the table in at least a half-dozen communities.

But the Portland and South Portland proposals encountered pushback from businesses as well as some consumers, and in April state lawmakers killed three bills that would have required retailers statewide to collect a nickel for each disposable bag.

Supporters note that the measures cost money upfront for consumers who continue to use bags, but reduce spending by communities on cleaning up litter, cleaning storm drains or repairing sewer systems clogged with plastic. Plastic breaks down into smaller pieces but does not biodegrade, meaning it can accumulate in the bodies of wildlife as well as humans.

“Many of us Mainers have livelihoods that depend upon our oceans at our doorstep,” said Averil Fessenden, co-founder of BYOB-MidCoast. “The health of our oceans is threatened by plastics.”

CONSUMERS HOLD DIFFERENT VIEWS

Clerk Lorraine Johnstone fills Freya Colella’s reusable bag at Wilbur’s of Maine Chocolate Confections in Brunswick. Colella favors less plastic pollution but not more regulation.

Clerk Lorraine Johnstone fills Freya Colella’s reusable bag at Wilbur’s of Maine Chocolate Confections in Brunswick. Colella favors less plastic pollution but not more regulation. Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer Clerk Lorraine Johnstone fills Freya Colella’s reusable bag at Wilbur’s of Maine Chocolate Confections in Brunswick. Colella favors less plastic pollution but not more regulation.

Such proposals are controversial, however, as was evident during Tuesday’s event.

Topsham resident Heather Archer peppered the speakers with questions about the proposal and raised concerns about the fees’ impact on residents already struggling to make ends meet. A mother of four young children, Archer said she understands the motivation of supporters but opposes a measure that “impacts everything that I buy for my family with my hard-earned money.”

“It sounds great and feels good to do it, but I am the one who pays for this in the end,” Archer told those gathered in the gazebo. “And I don’t have the extra money in my budget.”

The proposal received mixed reviews in several local stores.

Freya Colella of Brunswick, who was shopping in Wilbur’s of Maine Chocolate Confections with her daughter Toni DuPrie, supports the intent of such policies because she is concerned about plastic pollution. But Colella, who confessed to frequently forgetting her reusable bags in her car trunk, said government shouldn’t be able to force these policies on consumers.

“We have the government in our back pocket already,” she said.

Katie Feliciano, a Brunswick native who now lives in Hallowell, supports requiring retailers to collect fees on disposable bags. Although no one wants to pay more than they have to, Feliciano said, people have to consider the impact that plastic bags are having on the environment as a whole.

“So 5 cents is a fair trade-off,” she said as she left Wilbur’s of Maine – whose owners support the proposal – with a handful of candies and chocolates but no bag.

DEBATE ON INCLUDING PAPER BAGS

Across town at Uncle Tom’s Market, a convenience store and beer market located on busy Pleasant Street, owner Dan Bouthot was surprised to hear about the proposal. Bouthot said a few of his customers bring in reusable bags, but most do not. He questioned the necessity of charging a nickel for a small paper bag used to carry out a beer or snack.

“I can see it on plastic bags, but it doesn’t make sense for paper,” Bouthot said.

The drafters of both the original ban in Portland and the subsequent proposals under consideration elsewhere in Maine counter that paper bags, although biodegradable, actually consume more resources to produce and transport than plastic. Supporters said it is only fair to apply a fee to disposable paper bags at the same time as plastic bags.

In the weeks before Portland’s bag fee took effect, Hannaford supermarket gave away an estimated 160,000 reusable bags to consumers for free. Since April, the percentage of customers at Hannaford’s Portland store who brought in their own bags rose from 10 percent to more than 80 percent, a supermarket spokesman said last week.

BYOB-MidCoast members said they expect the proposal to be a “discussion item” on the Brunswick Town Council agenda next Monday but a public hearing and votes will occur at a later date.