BELFAST, Maine — Paper or canvas?
Shoppers in Belfast will need to remember to bring their own bags from home, or get used to paper, because plastic is on the way out.
Belfast city councilors approved a citywide ban on single-use plastic shopping bags and Styrofoam (generically known as extruded polystyrene foam) containers during a meeting Tuesday night. The ban takes effect on the first day of 2018, giving any businesses using them about four months to plan and find an alternative.
“I remember when plastic bags didn’t exist, and we all seemed to manage just fine,” Councilor Mary Mortier said.
The ban means stores and shops that put merchandise in plastic carry-out bags will have to stop doing so. It doesn’t ban other sorts of plastic bags — such as garbage bags, garment bags, dog waste bags or produce bags, from being used or sold in the city. The ordinance doesn’t prevent someone from bringing their own bags, plastic or otherwise, from home for the store to use.
The city says it will encourage stores to promote reusable bags made of canvas and similar materials, rather than just sending more single-use paper bags out their doors with customers.
The polystyrene ban includes any Styrofoam containers used to package food or beverages, such as takeout containers and coffee or soft drink cups. It doesn’t include trays used to package and sell meat, poultry or fish.
Violations will be met with a warning letter from the city manager, followed by a $100 fine for the next violation and an additional $250 fine for each violation after that.
Joe Mosier, owner of a downtown Belfast nautical themed bookshop, brought in two types of bags he sends customers out of the store with. He held up a blue plastic bag, saying his supplier charges 13½ cents for each one. In his other hand, he held a small paper bag with a handle, saying the supplier charges 25 cents for each of those bags.
He said he’ll have to replace his plastic bag stock with more expensive alternatives, as will other stores throughout the city. He questioned whether the city council should be making this call, or whether it should be left to the voters through a referendum.
Everyone else who chimed in at the public hearing before the council’s vote spoke in favor of the ban.
The city has been kicking around the idea for nearly a year. In September 2016, a group of locals formed a group called Ban the Bag Belfast, and called on the city to either ban or find ways to curtail the use of plastic bags in the city. The group wanted to cut down the amount of pollutants making their way into Penobscot Bay. More than 30 members crowded into City Hall Tuesday night in support of the measure.
“I expect there’s going to be a learning curve here,” Councilor Mike Hurley said of the ban, adding that the city would have to do some outreach to ensure locals and businesses understand the ban and have time to adapt.
The council first proposed an ordinance that would have placed a five-cent fee on every plastic bag that left a retailer’s doors, but the ordinance was written in a way that would have only affected two stores in the city — Hannaford and Ocean State Job Lot. In April, the council mothballed the fee idea and directed the city manager to come back with something stronger.
During the past two years, at least 10 municipalities in southern Maine have either banned or taxed single-use plastic bags, including Portland, South Portland, Brunswick, Topsham, Windham, Saco, Falmouth, York, Kennebunk and Freeport.
Belfast appears to be the most northerly Maine community to take the step.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.