SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — A single-use bag tax and ban on polystyrene in the city seem increasingly likely after Monday night’s City Council workshop.
How similar ordinance language should be to Portland’s, and whether to go beyond the limits of that ordinance, specifically for non-food-related businesses, remains to be decided.
The question for councilors was not if, but when.
“I personally think, like it or not, it’s time,” Councilor Maxine Beecher said.
“There’s a lot of bad stuff we’ve done for the sake of convenience in our lives, but now it’s all coming back to haunt us,” Mayor Linda Cohen added.
In late June, City Hall staff joined representatives from other municipalities in the Greater Portland Council of Governments that are also interested in adopting some version of the measures Portland enacted in April.
Two things became clear early on, City Manager Jim Gailey told councilors: “Not a lot of communities are pursuing the ban on polystyrene, and all communities at the meeting were at a different place when it came to single-use bags.”
Ultimately, the city decided to pursue the effort independently, and for the sake of consistency, draw an ordinances similar, if not the same, as Portland’s.
Staff believes that using Portland’s ordinance language is “a good first step,” Gailey said. “We want consistency within the region. For consistency’s sake, we looked at the Portland ordinance to see if it’s something South Portland wants to adopt.”
Portland has a five-cent fee for single-use bags, paper and plastic. It applies to all businesses that serve mostly food, except those where the sale of foods is less than 2 percent of gross sales. The aim is to target groceries and similar retailers, which dole out single-use bags in large quantities.
The ban on polystyrene also targets food and beverage retailers. Vendors are prohibited from using polystyrene in the packaging of prepared food, meat, eggs, bakery products, and beverage containers. Exemptions include raw seafood packaging.
Andy Hackman, a lobbyist for Michigan-based Dart Container Corp., which produces single-use containers, told the council that polystyrene is “100 percent recyclable,” and that making “polystyrene cups take less energy to produce than paper cups and the alternative.”
He also said the alternative containers typically cost more to produce.
Hackman asked the council to consider letting Dart set up infrastructure within the city to collect and recycle used polystyrene containers for free.
But Councilor Claude Morgan said the issue with polystyrene is two-pronged, and goes beyond Hackman’s assertions that the materials are recyclable.
“You see the residue of those products in our swamps, in our wetlands. If you’re looking for polystyrene to take back with you … you need look no further than the wetlands along our Greenbelt,” Morgan said.
“That’s the problem, that’s what we’re fighting here,” he continued. “The issue is the longevity of the product in the environment, and the fact that it is so light and so easily airborne, that’s why it’s hard to control, (and) bring back into the (waste) stream.”
Replacing polystyrene with a more compostable material would at least ensure that “once they hit the human trash stream, they’re composed of something that can degrade very quickly,” Morgan said.
Councilor Tom Blake also questioned whether for polystyrene specifically, it’s worth considering extending a ban to large retailers that sell products like electronics and household goods packaged in polystyrene.
“The bigger question is the extent of the article,” Blake said. “… If you’re talking about volume, there may be a heck of a lot more of that in South Portland than there is in coffee cups and food packaging. If indeed we want to take this a little further, I think we need to do a little more homework.”
Gailey was charged with continuing to research the measure before reconvening with the council sometime in the fall. He said it would take at least six months to a year to institute an ordinance.