Bill targets trash with 10-cent plastic bag fee

Posted Feb. 24, 2009, at 9:22 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill that would require Maine retailers to charge 10 cents for each plastic bag distributed to customers would eliminate tons of trash now going into landfills, blowing around in streets and clogging storm drains, supporters of the proposal told a legislative panel Tuesday.

Opponents said state law already addresses shopping-bag waste concerns and it would be unwise to impose a new tax during a recession.

The bill before the Natural Resources Committee is one of many similar measures that have surfaced in state capitols and cities across the country.

San Francisco has banned plastic bags outright. A citizen group in Seattle is challenging that city’s 20-cent bag fee and has collected enough signatures to send the matter to voters later this year. Bag fees also have been considered in New York and Boston.

The sponsor of Maine’s bill, Sen. John Nutting, D-Leeds, said he was amazed to see how many plastic bags went out the door during a recent trip to a supermarket.

“In just a few minutes, you can see these bags leaving the stores by the hundreds,” he said.

Nutting said a 25-cent fee in Ireland has helped reduce the number of plastic shopping bags used there by 90 percent. He said his bill’s intent is to get shoppers to buy reusable totes now available in many stores.

The state would distribute the money from the bag fees to municipalities for recycling programs.

The average family accumulates 60 plastic bags in only four trips to the grocery store, according to the Natural Resources Council of Maine, which supports the measure. The council’s Matt Prindiville said a study in California estimated that 12 million barrels of oil are used to produce the half-billion to several trillion plastic bags consumed annually in the United States.

Jenn Gray of Maine Audubon, which also supports the proposed fees, said discarded plastic bags also take a toll on wildlife. It’s estimated that 1 million sea creatures are killed every year after being snarled and choked by bags that find their way to the oceans, Gray said.

The Maine State Chamber of Commerce and Maine Grocers Association opposed Nutting’s bill. The Chamber’s Chris Jackson said state law already addresses waste concerns, but it isn’t enforced. The law requires stores to have collection bins and hire recyclers to take the bags away.

Jackson also told the committee that no new fees should be imposed as a recession continues.

“There couldn’t be a worse time to saddle consumers with additional costs, no matter how well-intentioned it is,” Jackson said.

The grocers’ executive vice president, Troy Plummer, called the fees “a tax on the consumer at a time they can least afford it.”

Steve Rosario of the American Chemistry Council questioned the 12 million barrels of oil figure that environmentalists cite, saying natural gas is used to make most of the bags.

Maine’s proposal had its legislative debut just after a bill in Colorado to ban plastic bags at supermarkets and other large stores by 2012 won a Senate committee’s support. Bills also have been considered in Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Texas and Virginia.

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