Divided Portland council bans polystyrene containers, adds fees on paper and plastic bags

Posted June 17, 2014, at 5:53 a.m.
Last modified June 17, 2014, at 9:35 a.m.

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PORTLAND, Maine — The Portland City Council voted late Monday night to implement a ban on polystyrene food containers, as well as tack a five-cent fee onto paper and plastic bags customers take from check-out lines.

Both moves were panned by business groups, who lamented the added costs of implementing the changes, but celebrated by environmental organizations, which lauded the potential for reduced litter and fossil fuel consumption.

With strong arguments pulling councilors both ways, the council was divided 6-3 on both ordinance changes, voting nearly five and a half hours into the Monday night meeting. Mayor Michael Brennan joined councilors Jon Hinck, Jill Duson, Ed Suslovic, David Marshall and Kevin Donoghue in favor, while Nicholas Mavodones, John Coyne and Cheryl Leeman voted against them.

“The outcome I want is less plastic bag waste in our community. I see that outcome necessarily created by this policy,” said councilor Kevin Donoghue. “I’m OK with what I perceive to be its imperfections in pursuit of the good that I think will come of it.”

Mavodones said he believed the ordinance changes will be “unfair to Portland businesses.”

“I think it’s laudable, the goals, but I don’t think this is going to be as impactful as people believe,” he said.

The two measures had bumpy roads leading into Monday night’s City Council meeting. The polystyrene ban was initially considered last September by the council, which punted it back to its transportation, sustainability and energy subcommittee for more work.

The bag fee proposal underwent multiple revisions — until last month, it was planned as a 10-cent charge per bag — before that same committee gave it the green light on May 21.

Both measures will take effect on April 15, 2015.

Under the bag fee plan, the retailers would keep the five cents customers pay per bag.

Glen Brand, director of the Sierra Club’s Maine chapter, said in a prepared statement Monday that plastic bags kill “millions and millions” of seabirds and mammals each year and take more than 200 years to decompose. He said the approximately 100 billion plastic bags Americans use annually are made up from the equivalent of 439 million gallons of oil.

“Styrofoam and plastic bags are more than unsightly eyesores; their production wastes energy and causes pollution, and they eventually end up as costly toxic litter,” Brand said. “Single-use plastic bags easily escape from garbage trucks, landfills, boats and average consumers’ hands. Carried by the wind, they end up in streams, ponds, lakes, rivers, and clogging storm drains, jamming recycling equipment and floating out to Casco Bay and the ocean.”

He added that a five-cent fee on plastic bags in Washington, D.C. triggered a 60 percent decrease in plastic bag usage in the city and a 50 percent drop in the number of bags found during the annual watershed cleanup. in San Jose, Brand said, the city found its storm drain systems to be 89 percent cleaner just one year after banning most single-use carryout bags and adding a 10-cent charge for those still allowed.

Joining Brand’s group in support of the bag fee and foam ban were the Friends of Casco Bay, Surfrider Foundation’s Maine chapter, Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Conservation Law Foundation.

Lucy Tabb, a student at Casco Bay High School, was one of a number of other attendees at Monday night’s meeting to urge passage of the measures as well.

“Polystyrene takes at least 500 years to decompose, which means if polystyrene existed in the 1600s, it would still be in our landfills today,” she said.

But the measures also found staunch opposition from several other organizations, largely representing businesses who would be forced to incur the costs of finding alternative packaging options and keep tallies of the new fees.

Among those reportedly against the bag fee and foam ban were the Maine Grocers & Food Producers Association, Maine Restaurant Association, Maine Energy Marketers Association, Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce and American Chemistry Council.

“Taking money out of the pockets of Portland residents by increasing their grocery bills is bad policy,” Shelly Doak, executive director of the grocers group, told the council Monday night.

“I don’t want to add any more frivolous charges for my customers,” said Barbara Anania, who runs a variety store in the city. “They’re not going to blame the city councilors, they’re going to blame the businesses.”

Others criticized the new measures as being “unfair” because they include exemptions, such as by allowing polystyrene for raw seafood containers, that treat some businesses different than others.

Andy Charles — owner of Haven’s Candies, which has one Portland location — argued that tourists often don’t travel with reusable shopping bags and would be put off by additional fees in the Old Port.

“Some people have labeled it as a fee, but let’s be honest, it’s a tax. In fact, it’s a double tax, because there will be sales tax on top of the bag taxes,” he told the council. “It’s just one more reason not to shop in the city.”

City Councilor Ed Suslovic rejected those arguments, however, saying despite the fact that many other communities around the country have passed similar measures, he’s never seen an example of a business suffering irrevocable economic hardship from either one.

“I think that the predictions of doom and gloom are unfounded. After two years of asking, I haven’t seen one example,” Suslovic said. “Such a liberal bastion as Dallas, Texas — the buckle of the Bible belt — has implemented a five-cent bag fee.”


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