The way Rep. Nicole Grohoski sees it, the time has come to do something about plastic shopping bags.

The first-term Democrat from Ellsworth is one of three lawmakers who have proposed legislation to ban or discourage the use of the ubiquitous shopping bags that environmentalists have long said clog storm drains, harm wildlife and pollute waterways.

Now, with a growing patchwork of local restrictions and the rising cost of improperly disposed-of bags, Maine may become one of the first states – and the first in New England – to ban single-use plastic bags. Even retailers who once opposed bans or fees on plastic bags say it may be time to consider a comprehensive state policy.

“There will always be people who are challenged by change, but I do feel positive momentum on this issue,” Grohoski said.

Interest in banning single-use plastic bags or discouraging their use through fees has traditionally been driven by concerns about the environment, but financial concerns are increasingly part of the conversation. With a global price collapse for recycled material brought on by a Chinese ban on importing many types of waste – including paper mixed with plastic film and other contaminants – communities around the state are struggling to keep plastic bags out of their recyclables and, in some cases, paying fines when they don’t.

“The plastics issue is a huge one people are finally opening their eyes to,” said Sarah Lakeman, the Sustainable Maine project director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “A product that will never degrade shouldn’t be used for a purpose lasting only moments.”

Twenty towns and cities across Maine have enacted either outright bans or fees on plastic shopping bags and at least a half-dozen more are considering local ordinances. Many of those policies were approved in the two years since state lawmakers last considered a bill to ban plastic bags.

“It didn’t seem as ripe for action at that time,” Lakeman said. “Now that we have so many towns living with (policies), the landscape has changed.”

A recent survey by the Retail Association of Maine showed that nearly 65 percent of its members now support a ban or fee on plastic bags. That level of support does not surprise Curtis Picard, executive director of the association, because of the number of towns that already have local bans or fees.

“It’s getting to be more of a challenge for retailers that operate in more than one community. It seems each community feels the need to rewrite these ordinances from scratch,” he said. “We may be at the point where a statewide, comprehensive ordinance may be better for everybody.”

California retailers trying to navigate a similar patchwork of local laws pushed for a comprehensive state policy, leading to the first statewide ban on single-use plastic bags in the country in 2016. Other states are now starting to debate similar measures.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants his state to become the next to adopt an outright ban on plastic bags. In New Jersey, where about two dozen municipalities already have some form of plastic ban, lawmakers are considering a statewide ban on single-use plastic grocery bags, plastic bags and Styrofoam containers. And in Washington state, lawmakers plan to introduce a bill to impose a statewide ban on plastic bags.

In addition to Grohoski’s bill, Maine lawmakers also will consider bills from Rep. Holly Stover of Boothbay and Rep. David Harold McCrea of Fort Fairfield that would ban plastic shopping bags or reduce waste by promoting the use of reusable bags. Language for the bills is not yet available, and no public hearings have been scheduled.

It’s not yet clear the proposals will carve out exemptions, such as for small businesses or specialty retailers, or apply to all bags.

Grohoski said she would like a ban on plastic bags at the point of sale in all retail stores. But she sees room for “common-sense” exemptions on bags used in pharmacies, small bags for produce or meat, and bags to separate caustic items from groceries.

“The idea is to encourage people to reuse shopping bags,” she said.

The bills are expected to face opposition from the plastic bag manufacturing industry, which argues that consumers do reuse plastic bags and that bans or fees put a financial burden on both retails and customers.

But they appear to have strong support in Maine.

The Environmental Priorities Coalition, a partnership of 34 environmental, conservation and public health organizations in Maine, lists a single-use bag ban as a priority bill for the current legislative session.

Lakeman, from the Natural Resources Council of Maine, started working on the plastic bag issue in 2014, when Portland became the first community in Maine to enact a fee for single-use plastic bags – 5 cents per bag. There are now 20 communities with policies.

“Those 20 towns that have policies cover about 20 percent of the population,” she said. “It is affecting a large portion of the state.”

Until recently, most of the towns have been located along the immediate coast, but there is growing interest in inland and rural communities, Lakeman said. Biddeford, Bethel, Ellsworth and Augusta are among the cities and towns currently working on policies.

CONTAMINATION FINES

In his 25 years working for the city of Biddeford, public works director Jeff Demers has seen plastic bags flushed into the sewer system, clogging catch basins and floating in the Saco River. Increasingly, the bags are showing up in recycling bins, putting the city at risk of paying fines for having too much unwanted material – contamination – in recycling processed by Casella Waste Systems.

The city’s policy committee this month tabled the proposed ordinance to allow more time to gather public feedback and talk to local retailers. The committee is expected to revisit the issue in March and forward a proposal to the City Council for consideration.

The idea of a policy related to single-use plastic bags has been kicking around Biddeford for a while, Demers said, but city officials decided it was time to move forward in part because of the concerns about contamination in recyclables collected in curbside bins from residents. Biddeford, like communities around the state, is trying to keep the bags out of the recycling stream. So far, the city hasn’t been charged by Casella for contaminated loads.

“The plastic bags are a nuisance,” Demers said.

Biddeford is not the only community where officials are concerned about plastic bags in curbside recycling bins. While the bags are recyclable, they must be brought back to retailers as part of a separate collection and recycling program instead of simply getting tossed into household recycling bins or municipal recycling containers.

Plastic shopping bags are consistently in the top five list of contaminants in Greater Portland’s recycling stream, along with things like Styrofoam, food waste and propane tanks, according to Matt Grondin, a spokesman for ecomaine, the cooperative that manages waste disposal for Portland and more than 60 other communities. Ecomaine’s employees frequently have to fish plastic bags out of the recycling stream or turn off sorting machines to cut the bags out.

Starting in July, ecomaine will charge its 20 owner communities $35 per ton for recyclables to help cover the increased costs of contaminated recycling. The nonprofit corporation has been losing thousands of dollars a month as it struggles to pick out as much non-recyclable material as it can from the thousands of tons of recycling it processes every year.

For years, collecting and selling dirty recyclable material wasn’t a problem because China, the world’s largest recyclables customer, allowed higher contamination rates. But last year, the Chinese government banned or restricted 24 types of materials and limited the amount of contamination levels in mixed paper it receives to 1 percent.

The $35 per ton fee for recyclables is a significant hit for communities and property taxpayers. In Portland, which generates 5,500 tons of recyclables a year, the fee amounts to nearly $200,000. In neighboring Falmouth, which generates about 2,000 tons a year, the fee amounts to $70,000.

That recycling fee is in addition to tens of thousands of dollars a year that many ecomaine communities are paying in contamination assessments. The assessments are based on the volume of plastic bags and other non-recyclable items that arrive in recycling deliveries to ecomaine. Larger communities were expecting to pay as much as $100,000 or more per year in the assessments.

BAN CONSIDERED IN 2017

The Ellsworth City Council is expected to have a workshop in the coming months to consider a proposed ordinance to ban plastic bags. It would not impose a fee on paper bags, as has been done in several other communities. Grohoski said she has seen strong support for the ban in the Ellsworth community, including among local businesses. Outside the polls on Election Day, only a handful of the few hundred people surveyed said they would oppose a ban, she said.

“There’s a misconception that businesses are against this when the majority actually approve of the concept,” she said. “They want us to level the playing field for them.”

When Maine lawmakers in 2017 considered a bill to phase out the use of single-use plastic bags, the proposal was opposed by the Retail Association of Maine. In testimony to the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, Picard pointed out that “most Mainers do the right thing” when it comes to reusing plastic bags.

“They reuse plastic shopping bags as waste can liners, to pick up pet waste and to carry any number of items around,” he said at the time.

But since then, the survey of the 350 members of the association showed stronger support for a ban on plastic bags. Of the members who responded to a recent survey, only 35 percent opposed both a ban or a fee on plastic bags.

More than 80 percent of survey respondents support reasonable exclusions from bans for things like produce and dry cleaning bags. Nearly 69 percent of members said a statewide ordinance should apply to businesses of all sizes, not just those over 10,000 square feet, according to the association.

While Picard said he also believes there is a strong chance a statewide ban will be enacted, there is opposition from the industry that makes plastic bags.

Matt Seaholm is executive director of American Progressive Bag Alliance, a Washington D.C.-based group that represents the plastic bag manufacturing and recycling industry and fights against bans and taxes on plastic bags across the country.

His reaction to new proposals of bans and fees on plastic bags is often one of frustration, he said.

“At the end of the day, any of these bans or taxes have not been shown to reduce overall litter or waste,” he said. “There is an incredible amount of misinformation out there.”

Seaholm said one of the most common misconceptions about plastic shopping bags is that they are not recyclable. Consumers can bring plastic bags back to the store to be recycled through a take-back program started by members of the alliance. And, Seaholm said, about 78 percent of the plastic bags often referred to as “single-use” are reused for something else, like holding sweaty gym clothes or picking up pet waste.

“We try to point out that maybe the recycling rate isn’t as high as you’d like, but it’s because (the bags) are being reused,” he said. “That one reuse makes them better than any other bag at the checkout stand.”

Local bag bans or fees can be a financial burden on retailers and consumers, including seniors or people with low incomes, he said. The laws may be well-intentioned, Seaholm said, but the “policies end up being more emotional than fact-driven.”

 


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