Efforts to repeal a 2019 state law banning single-use plastic shopping bags suffered a blow Wednesday when the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee voted 8-3 to keep the ban in place.

The Legislature had delayed enforcement of the new law as part of a COVID-19 response bill it passed prior to adjourning in March. Implementation of the ban was delayed again in December by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection until July 1.

Rep. Chris Johansen Photo from Maine Legislature

The law originally was scheduled to take effect on Earth Day, April 22, 2020, but changes in consumer demand caused by the pandemic as well as disruptions in obtaining replacement materials would have made the ban difficult to enforce, state DEP officials said at the time.

On Wednesday, the committee voted against three separate bills that would have repealed the ban. The committee also rejected a proposal by Rep. Chris Johansen, R-Monticello, to keep the statewide ban in place but let local municipalities allow the use of plastic bags.

Johansen said plastic bags littering the landscape is not an issue in northern and rural Aroostook County, where he lives. He said local municipalities should be allowed to decide what’s right for them even though the state’s largest retail organizations have supported a uniform statewide approach to what they can offer consumers.

“We are not having a problem with the plastic bags as it was described by those folks that were testifying in other areas of the state,” Johansen said during the online meeting. “You can drive all day here and not see a plastic bag in the trees alongside the road and a lot of us have uses for them, where we reuse them.”

Rep. Jeffrey Hanley, R-Pittston, agreed with Johansen. Hanley said he lives on the Kennebec River and could, “count on one hand” the number of times he’s picked up littered plastic bags while boating.

“The problem isn’t plastic bags,” Hanley said while testifying in support of Johansen’s bill. “It’s people. This amendment adds a little bit of common sense to this legislation.”

But only one other member of the 13-member committee, Rep. Beth O’Connor, R-Berwick, voted for Johansen’s amendment. Another member, Rep. Will Tuell, R-East Machias, was absent Wednesday but will still have 24 hours to register his vote on the matter.

Maine is one of 10 states with a statewide ban of single-use plastic bags, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Prior to the statewide ban, 24 cities and towns, including Portland, had enacted ordinances (as of May 2019) banning single-use bags or requiring stores to charge a fee for them to reduce their use.

Rep. Vicki Doudera

Lawmakers supporting the ban said the Legislature had settled on a uniform approach to protecting the environment when it approved the ban in 2019. The law, they said, was in large part a compromise with the state’s largest retailers, who wanted consistent policy statewide instead of  a confusing array of local ordinances.

Lawmakers who voted to keep the ban in place said Wednesday that plastic bags continue to cause environmental problems as well as problems with recycling and waste disposal and that their constituents overwhelmingly support eliminating their use.

“I have heard from many, dozens and dozens of constituents saying, ‘Please keep the plastic bag ban,’ ” said Rep. Vicki Doudera, D-Camden.

Doudera said as a member of her local conservation commission she has led litter cleanup campaigns.

“And I can tell you that there are plastic bags littering our landscape, they are getting into our oceans,” she said.

The full Legislature will still vote on the issue again in the weeks ahead, but the 8-3 committee vote to reject a repeal is unlikely to be overturned.

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