Credit: George Danby / BDN

Come next March, York residents will have to pack their own bags when they go shopping after voters on Nov. 3 approved a first-in-the-state ban on plastic shopping bags.

Supporters of the new ordinance hope that removing plastic bags from the checkout will mean less plastic ends up in landfills or as litter.

“There’s a concern because we’re a coastal town. We wanted to reduce plastic waste, particularly the amount of plastic that ends up in the ocean,” said Victoria Simon, director of Bring Your Own Bag York, a local group that campaigned for the ordinance.

Plastic bags are a common symbol of the country’s throwaway culture. Once the bags have made the trip from the checkout to the car and from the car to the cupboard, shoppers often toss them right into the trash. Discarded bags often blight roadsides and urban neighborhoods and become environmental hazards, clogging waterways and harming aquatic wildlife.

But plastic shopping bags are just the “low-hanging fruit,” Simon said. By banning single-use plastic bags, Simon hopes York residents will also start to reconsider plastic cutlery and other items commonly used once and then thrown away.

York isn’t the only Maine town to try to curb plastic waste. Earlier this year, Portland put in place a 5-cent fee on plastic bags, and South Portland will follow suit in March. Brunswick and Topsham also are considering bag fees.

With contrasting policies combating plastic bag waste in Portland and York, Maine will have a chance to see firsthand what works better: charging a fee to get plastic bags at the checkout or banning them outright.

A legacy of waste

By one estimate, Americans throw away 100 billion plastic shopping bags every year. That’s 314 bags for every man, woman and child. In Maine, that adds up to more than 417 million bags used once, then thrown away each year.

As a result, U.S. consumers recycle only 7 percent of plastic shopping bags, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Once they’ve outlived their usefulness, the other 93 percent of bags — although they’re recyclable — often end up in landfills. A 2011 residential waste characterization study conducted by researchers at the University of Maine found that plastic bags were the sixth most common plastic thrown away in Maine. They accounted for about 0.82 percent of landfill waste by weight. That means that, of the 1.16 million tons of garbage sent to Maine landfills last year, plastic bags accounted for about 9,525 tons.

“Plastic bags aren’t going anywhere. If you dig up a landfill hundreds of years from now, they’ll still be there,” Travis Blackmer, a research associate at the University of Maine’s Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions and one of the authors of the 2011 study, said.

Scientists believe plastic bags take between 500 and 1,000 years to break down. As they break down, they give off toxic chemicals that pollute the soil and nearby waterways.

Mixed results

For many U.S. cities, plastic bag bans have become a popular solution in recent years to reduce litter and bring down the waste disposal costs. San Francisco became the first city to enact a ban in 2007. Since then, more than 130 other cities and towns have followed suit.

But determining how effective these bans have been isn’t easy. A 2013 study by the Equinox Center, a research center based near San Diego, California, reported that while cities reported a drop in plastic bag use, few cities conducted before-and-after litter surveys or waste-stream composition studies to quantify whether fewer plastic bags end up in the landfill or as litter following bans.

Before implementing its ban, San Francisco conducted a survey in 2007 to measure plastic bag litter and found that plastic bags comprised 0.5 percent of litter by weight. Two years later, another survey found that plastic bags had actually grown as a percentage of the city’s litter, with the bags accounting for 1.5 percent. No other litter surveys have been conducted since 2009 to measure the ban’s long-term effect on litter.

An assessment of a 2013 plastic bag ban in Austin, Texas, released earlier this year found that the ban’s “results do not indicate a clear success.” The city’s assessment, released last June, estimates that plastic bag litter fell by 75 percent, from 0.12 percent of litter by weight in 2013 to 0.03 percent in 2015.

While residents of Austin threw away fewer single-use plastic bags, the city found in an unexpected twist that residents started throwing out the new, thicker reusable bags that took their place. These more durable, reusable bags accounted for nearly 90 percent of all plastic bags — single use and reusable — in the waste stream following the ban, according to the assessment, “nearly equivalent to the amount of all of the single-use bags removed from the recycling stream as a result of the ordinance implemented in 2013.”

‘Cultural shift’

Simon, of Bring Your Own Bag York, acknowledged problems could arise as the ban rolls out next year. In Austin, 61 percent of the reusable bags that residents threw out came from one local retailer. But education and outreach to schools and local businesses could address challenges like those in Austin, she said.

“These kinds of bans spur innovation and creativity,” she said. “We will find solutions as we go forward.”

York has yet to address how it will measure the impact of its ban. No litter or waste survey took place before the ban and, so far, there are no plans to conduct one in the future. But that is an issue supporters of the ordinance could hash out later this year.

In June 2014, before Portland’s bag fee took effect, a cleanup conducted in Portland’s Back Cove helped the city get a sense of how many plastic bags ended up as litter, according to Sarah Lakeman, sustainable projects coordinator at the Natural Resources Council of Maine. A second cleanup will take place in June with the aim of seeing whether the fee reduced plastic bag litter.

A similar survey in York would be key to getting a sense of the impact of the ban — in comparison with the bag-fee model used in Portland — and provide other towns in Maine with the information they need to determine which path is right for them.

Lakeman, who provided support to York’s bag ban campaign, lauded the town’s effort to motivate a “cultural shift” in residents’ attitude toward waste.

Lakeman said she hopes York’s bag ban will inspire other towns to try to reduce plastic pollution in their communities. Already, Falmouth and Freeport are mulling similar ordinances.

“It won’t stop plastic pollution, but it’s a good first step to a less wasteful society,” she said.