AUGUSTA — Maine could join three other states in banning single-use plastic shopping bags if a bill heard Wednesday by the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee becomes law.

“It is time we tackle this issue on a larger scale,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Holly Stover, D-Boothbay, at a news conference before the hearing.

A similar bill fell one vote short of passing in the Senate in 2018, but a renewed effort by Stover and several legislative co-sponsors has attracted the support of retailers, who are seeking consistency as plastic bag ordinances proliferate at the local level.

The remains of a discarded plastic bag hang in a tree near the State House, where lawmakers took testimony Wednesday on a statewide plastic-bag ban.  Staff photo by Scott Thistle

The measure faced skepticism from some committee members, and opposition from a conservative research group that says plastic bag curbs accomplish little in the way of environmental protection.

Stover said the bill isn’t a solution to all plastic pollution, but as a coastal state Maine needs to do all it can to keep plastics out of the ocean to protect both the state’s tourism and fishing industries. Stover said plastic bags are the fourth most common type of plastic pollution.

Her bill would require retailers to use paper bags and charge at least 5 cents for each one.

Christine Cummings, executive director of the Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association, said the 5-cent fee would help retailers cover some of the cost of switching to paper bags. She said a typical single-use plastic bag costs a retailer about 2.5 cents while paper bags cost 11 to 12 cents each.

Cummings said smaller grocers wanted the fee because they can’t cover paper bag costs as easily as larger supermarkets. She said the bill was the result of a collaborative effort and it represented “a compromise on a middle ground that works for our state.”

Also testifying in support of the bill was Curtis Picard, executive director of the Retail Association of Maine, who described the measure as the end result of a “very long” and “very collaborative” process.

“This is not everything we would like, and it’s not everything the environmental community would like,” Picard said.

Other supporters, including Adam Reny, whose family owns the 16-store Reny’s chain, said reducing plastic consumption and waste is a moral imperative. His family decided in 2017 to stop using plastic bags in its stores.

“When we decided to move to paper it wasn’t just a business decision, it was a moral decision,” Reny said. “We want to keep Maine the way it is. Maine is a beautiful place, that’s why people live here, that’s why they work here, that’s why they visit us.”

Twenty-one Maine cities and towns, including Portland, have enacted local ordinances banning single-use bags or requiring stores to charge a fee for them in an effort to reduce their use. Supporters of the bill said retailers want a single ordinance for the state as those with outlets in different locations are now facing a confusing array of different ordinances.

In 2015, Portland was the first Maine city to pass an ordinance that attempted to encourage consumers to use reusable shopping bags by requiring grocery and convenience stores to charge a 5-cent fee for any paper or plastic bag.

Maine would join California, Hawaii and New York, which enacted its ban earlier this month, in banning the use of the bags, which environmentalists say make up a large chunk of the plastic pollution going into the environment, especially the oceans.

Rep. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, another co-sponsor of the bill, said the measure also could help keep existing streams of recyclable materials such as paper free of plastic contamination that lowers their value in the global marketplace. China has stopped taking most recyclable materials from the U.S., in part due to high plastic contamination.

Plastic bags in the waste stream also cost recycling companies such as ecomaine time and money, when they jam up sorting machines at their facilities, Grohoski said.

Opponents, however, said the bill will simply add costs for businesses and consumers while doing little to reduce plastic pollution.

Adam Crepeau, a policy analyst for the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a right-leaning and free market policy think tank, said the ban may have an effect on litter, but the overall environmental impact of manufacturing paper bags is greater. Citing a Danish study, Crepeau said a paper bag would have to be reused 43 times to make it environmentally neutral.

“A mandate on businesses that would hurt consumers is the last thing we need in this state,” Crepeau said. “Nickel-and-diming consumers and mandating prohibitions is the wrong approach to changing consumer behaviors.”

He also took exception to language in the bill that allows people receiving food stamps to be exempt from the 5-cent bag fee, noting that some people who receive food stamps are not below the federal poverty level, while others who are below the poverty level but don’t get food stamps would have to pay the bag fee.

Also exempt from the ban are plastic bags for certain types of businesses, including dry cleaners, and bags used for loose produce or certain other agricultural products, an inconsistent system which creates “winners and losers,” Crepeau said.

Some lawmakers on the committee also voiced skepticism over a ban saying they believed the underlying issue is littering.

“Not only do we have a problem with plastic, we have a problem with educating children,” said Rep. Thomas Skofield, R-Weld. “Somehow we’ve lost that education component to littering that we used to do better at.”

The bill will face additional scrutiny during a work session before the committee next week, before being sent to the full Legislature for a vote in the weeks ahead.

Correction: This story was updated at 9:11 a.m. on April 25, 2019 to correct the spelling of Rep. Nicole Grohoski’s name.

 

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