BATH — The City Council on Wednesday took a preliminary step toward eliminating a 5-cent fee on single-use paper bags at city businesses.

The council’s unanimous first approval of an ordinance amendment ending the fee will be followed by a second and final vote next month.

A ban on plastic bags would remain in place.

“I think the plastic bag ban has gone very well, and that was really the intent of this ordinance,” City Manager Peter Owen said.

But, he added, “there’s been a real pushback by the business community,” particularly shops that provide small bags at point of sale for items like a book or pastry.

Those businesses “don’t want to charge anything, and we made it mandatory,” Owen said.

Under the change, the fee would no longer be mandatory, but at the discretion of businesses. The Solid Waste Advisory Committee recommended the amendment to the council following “much deliberation,” Public Works Director Lee Leiner said in a March 26 memo to that panel.

The City Council authorized a ban on plastic bags and polystyrene containers in separate votes in October and November 2017. The delay in enactment until Earth Day on April 22, 2018, provided time to spread the word and allowed businesses to use up their stocks of disposable bags.

In turn, the city spent $4,500 on 3,500 reusable “Bath Bags,” for distribution at no cost to shoppers.

The 5-cent fee had been scheduled to increase to 10 cents this Earth Day, in about two weeks. But it would now be up to individual businesses to decide what fee to assess, if any, and they would continue to keep those revenues, Leiner said Wednesday.

The bag fee’s implementation had been inconsistent among businesses, he explained.

Reasons they reported for not complying, Leiner said, included the notion that a “tiny fee cheapens the product and insults the customer”; paper bags come in a large variety of sizes; few alternatives exist for small bags used to contain small items, and paper bags meant to contain ready-to-eat foods are difficult to replace with reusable bags.

“It turns out there’s quite a wide variety of bag sizes, and products being placed in bags,” he said. “… To see it in practice is a little different than sitting in a committee and discussing it.”

The committee decided “it would be better left to the business owner to try to figure out how to wean themselves and their customers to different packaging materials,” Leiner added.

Only six businesses had not complied as of late last year, Codes Enforcement Officer Scott Davis said Wednesday. He issued letters instructing them to do so, and they have since complied, avoiding any need for fines, he added.

“It felt uncomfortable for the city to be going after businesses and changing a fine, for not charging for a 5-cent bag,” Owen said. By allowing them to keep the fees, “we thought that we were doing something that they would want; we found out the merchants don’t want this.”

The city policy was intended to help clean up Bath’s environment by getting rid of bags that clog storm drains, adversely impact wildlife and waterways, and do not biodegrade.

“The fee for paper bags was included as an incentive to help customers shift to reusable bags without banning paper bags outright,” Leiner said in his memo. “The committee believes that with an enhanced education program, the public will increase the use of reusable bags. The committee encourages customers of all businesses to change their shopping behavior to include reusable bags.”

Eliminating the fee for paper bags will “probably” reduce the incentive not to use them, Leiner acknowledged Wednesday. “I’m thinking that we’re going to try to pick up the slack with some more education, some more outreach.”

“The general feeling in the U.S. these days, and the world, is that people are trying to move away from the single-use (materials),” he added. “… We’ll make some progress, even if we’re making … one step back, and two steps forward.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 780-9085 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

An ordinance banning the distribution of disposable plastic shopping bags went into effect nearly a year ago in Bath. A simultaneous 5-cent fee on single-use paper bags, meant to encourage shoppers to use reusable bags like this one, may soon be discontinued.

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