Bag fee, foam ban sought in Brunswick, Topsham

Posted Oct. 14, 2015, at 2:24 p.m.

BRUNSWICK, Maine — The momentum created by Portland’s fee on single-use shopping bags and its ban on polystyrene foam food packaging has swept up the coast, with similar measures proposed Tuesday for Brunswick and Topsham.

Members and supporters of the citizen’s group Bring Your Own Bag – Midcoast held a press conference on the Brunswick mall to announce their intent to support ordinances in both towns.

BYOBM co-founder Averil Fessenden said she was inspired to form the advocacy group “when I learned just how fast we are filling up the oceans with plastics.”

According to Science magazine, there are 8 million metric tons of plastic debris in the oceans, Fessenden said. She argued this directly impacts important Maine industries like fishing and tourism.

The group laid out plans to sponsor two measures: one for a 5-cent fee on plastic and paper bags at retail stores, and one to ban polystyrene packaging for prepared foods and beverages.

Both ordinances would be largely identical to Portland’s. The bag fee, however, would go further by charging the fee at all retail stores, not just those with food sales of 2 percent or more, according to the group’s press release.

Fessenden said Hannaford supermarkets report that 80 percent of their Portland customers now use reusable bags, compared to 10 percent before the ordinance was passed.

Dry cleaners, restaurants and stores that re-use plastic bags would be exempt from the bag fee in Brunswick and Topsham.

The group had gathered 1,000 signatures as of Tuesday, and two Brunswick town councilors, Steve Walker and Kathy Wilson, agreed to sponsor the measures. The Brunswick council is scheduled to discuss the measures at its Oct. 19 meeting.

The group is also hoping for a positive recommendation from Topsham’s Board of Selectmen, before going to Town Meeting next spring.

BYOBM member Marianne Haughwout also announced the results of interviews members conducted with 77 Brunswick businesses.

Of the 42 retail stores they visited, she said, 28 indicated they would be greatly or somewhat affected by the bag fee. Of those 28, 10 indicated they are in favor of the ordinance, and three opposed it.

The remainder said they are neutral, or owned by an outside corporation and were unable to take a stand.

Group members also interviewed 32 restaurants about the polystyrene ban. Twenty-two reported they did not use polystyrene foam at all, Haughwout said.

Of the 10 that did, three indicated they were “dead against” the measure, she said.

“In the process of talking to these stores, we garnered the public support of over two dozen area businesses, who share our support and commitment for the environment,” Haughwout said. The endorsements are on the group’s website, BringYourOwnBag.info.

The announcements from group members were echoed in remarks from representatives of Wild Oats Bakery, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, and the Maine Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Plastics are often “deadly to wildlife,” Glen Brand of the Sierra Club said. Plastic bags clog animals’ intestines, he said, and can cause them to choke to death.

He applauded the group for moving to reduce “this unnecessary expense of toxic pollution” that is a “legacy of waste for future generations.”

In addition, according to Ryan Parker of NRCM, “using reusable bags takes almost no effort.”

But not everyone was buying the notion that the move would be benign for Brunswick and Topsham consumers.

At one point during the press conference, Heather Archer, a Topsham resident, asked how the fee would affect the bottom line for shoppers.

“I’m someone who needs to pay for this,” she said.

BYOBM co-founder Marcia Harrington responded that her group had already raised $2,000 of a $5,000 pledge to purchase reusable bags to give away.

Additionally, she argued, the cost of plastic bags is “already wrapped up” in grocery bills, as well as tax bills that pay for litter removal. Those costs would “presumably” go down, she said.

“I can’t live on presumably,” Archer responded. She was repeatedly asked to “stop interrupting.”

“This is our press conference, not yours,” Harrington said.

After the meeting, Archer said that although the bag fee “is a wonderful idea and great on paper, it’s not in real life.”

She said as a working mother of four, she is “tired of seeing my bills go up and up and up.”

“Nobody pays my bills but me,” she said.

But David Wiggin, of Topsham, said he was not swayed from his belief that the measures make good economic and environmental sense.

“It takes time to change people’s attitudes,” Wiggin said. He said many people were opposed to bottle deposits when they were enacted, but now it’s a “no-brainer.”

Portland enacted its bag fee and foam ban in April 2014. Now Freeport, Falmouth, and South Portland are considering similar policies.

The Freeport Town Council Ordinance Committee is working on a recommendation to regulate single-use shopping bags.

Falmouth’s Town Council hopes to have an ordinance in place by Jan. 1 that would ultimately ban plastic bags, with a two-year phase-in.

The South Portland City Council in September enacted a 5-cent bag fee and polystyrene food container ban, effective March 1, 2016, with language very similar to Portland’s.

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