PORTLAND, Maine — In what may be a case of history repeating itself, a Portland City Council task force on Monday narrowly recommended a proposed fee that many city merchants would charge customers to package goods in disposable bags.
The council’s Green Packaging Working Group, which last year proposed a ban on polystyrene foam food packages, voted 8-5 to recommend a draft ordinance that would impose a 10-cent surcharge on each plastic and paper bag used by grocers, convenience stores, restaurants, farmers markets and clothing cleaners.
The surcharge is intended to discourage the use of the bags, which are a source of litter, block storm drains and endanger wildlife, according to the ordinance.
To handle extra overhead costs, merchants would get to keep 40 percent of the surcharge, while the city would receive 60 percent for a variety of environmental clean-up measures.
The ordinance will now be reviewed by the council’s Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee, which could take it up as soon as March and then refer it to the full council for consideration.
If approved, the fee would take effect April 1, 2015.
The working group, which is chaired by Councilor Ed Suslovic and includes residents, business people and environmental advocates, has been looking for almost a year to find ways to make packaging used in the city more earth-friendly. On Monday, the proposed “waste reduction fee” on disposable bags provoked a familiar debate.
Like the proposed ban on polystyrene foam — often known by the brand name Styrofoam — the proposed fee was criticized by group members representing retailers and other commercial sectors, who claim it will hurt business and unfairly targets them. Some members also objected that the proposed ordinance was too broad to be politically workable.
Despite the recommendation of the group and the TSE Committee, the polystyrene foam ban was tabled by the council in September and is now being reconsidered by the committee. Working group member Michele Brooks, a resident representative, expressed concern that the bag fee could meet a similar fate.
“If we are too broad, especially out of the gate, we run the risk of (the fee) going down in flames,” she said Monday.
Suslovic shared that concern, urging the group to apply the ordinance merely to grocery and convenience stores, “where the bulk of the problem occurs.” Indeed, that was the extent of the proposal when the working group first considered a draft two weeks ago.
Once the ordinance is established and accepted, the council can later expand it to include other types of businesses, he noted.
But in a series of amendments, group members voted to do so immediately, including restaurants, farmers markets and clothing cleaners under the ordinance. However, the group drew the line at other types of business, refusing to apply the fee to bags used by “big box” stores, hardware stores and newspaper distributors.
That selectivity bothered Holm Avenue resident Robert Haines.
In public comment, he claimed the ordinance would be illegal because it targeted only some types of merchants. Holding up plastic bags used by a variety of stores, he said, “I don’t see any difference … It’s either everything or nothing in order to meet a public purpose.”
Despite such concerns, Suslovic voted in support of the ordinance, and previously said he was “optimistic” that the bag fee and the polystyrene foam ban would be considered by the council during the spring in a single measure.
But Portland Community Chamber lobbyist Chris O’Neil called the fee “troubling” and warned that the business community would oppose it.
“While we agree with the intent (of the fee), we wonder if we’re going to have ‘bag police’ in Portland,” he said during the comment period. “This will probably end up as a food fight at the legislative level, in the City Council.”