If you spot Anita King of Belfast while doing your grocery shopping, chances are good that she’ll check out your grocery cart.
But not to see what’s for dinner. King, an advocate for the city’s new ban on single-use plastic bags and expanded styrofoam containers, may just be looking to see if you remembered to bring a reusable grocery bag, and if you do, she’ll probably smile. King has been smiling a lot lately, more than three months since the Belfast bag ban went into effect.
“I’m really encouraged to see shoppers at Hannaford, by and large, bringing in reusable bags,” she said last week. “I think it feels like we’re all kind of helping make a difference in this world. About being careful about the products we use. And not adding to the waste that’s in landfills and that ends up in the oceans. It is good to see a greater effort. I think people are beginning to get on board.”
Not every Mainer is as enthusiastic as King is about switching from plastic to paper or reusable bags, but more and more have had to do it since the first ordinance regulating single-use plastic bags took effect in Portland nearly three years ago. It took the Portland City Council more than a year of study before they voted to enact a 5-cent fee on paper and plastic bags at stores where food sales count for more than 2 percent of their business, including grocery stores, convenience stores and pharmacies.
Regulations also have been enacted in South Portland, York, Falmouth, Freeport, Kennebunk, Topsham, Brunswick, Saco and Cape Elizabeth, with the most recently adopted ordinances in the cities of Bath and Rockland. This week, Rockland councilors voted to enact a ban on single-use plastic bags that will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2019. Bath’s ambitious ordinance, which bans single-use plastic bags and charges fees on paper bags that will escalate to 15 cents per bag after the third year, goes into effect April 22. Other communities, including Waterville, are now talking about whether they want to impose ordinances, too.
That’s a lot of change in a hurry, and even some proponents of plastic bag bans said that the speedy pace of communities adopting ordinances here seems surprising to them.
“I think it’s remarkable how quickly it’s happened,” Sarah Lakeman of the Natural Resources Council of Maine said this week. “I feel the conversation changing … It’s just not going away, this issue. For me, plastic is durable and cheap, and that’s why it’s good, but that’s also why it’s bad. I don’t think that stuff you use for a moment should last in the environment forever.”
Plastic bag fees and bans can be controversial, but in the Maine communities that already have adopted the changes, at least one official said that the transition has been much easier than anticipated. Merton Brown, the longtime Kennebunk town clerk, said that when the bag ban in his community went into effect in 2016, he figured he’d hear about it.
“When the idea first came up, I wondered how it would go over,” he said. “I have to tell you I would be first in line for complaints. It passed two years ago and I did not receive a single complaint from residents … it was one of the simplest ordinance changes or creation that I can recall.”
Environmental boon or government overreach?
Single-use plastic bags certainly can be convenient, but the convenience comes at a cost. Plastic bags have a long afterlife after you unpack your groceries. Non-biodegradable plastic bags can end up littering streets and storm drains, stuck high in tree branches or floating out to sea, where they break down into tiny pieces and can be mistaken as food by fish and wildlife.
When looked at by the numbers, plastic bags can be overwhelming. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, a Tucson, Arizona-based conservation organization, Americans use 100 billion plastic bags a year, and the average American family takes home almost 1,500 plastic bags annually. Those bags are used for an average of just 12 minutes but it takes 500 or more years for a plastic bag to degrade in a landfill.
Because there’s also an energy and resource cost to disposable paper bags, many proponents of the bag ban say that the very best choice for the environment is a durable, washable bag that people actually reuse.
Still, not everyone thinks that the often controversial move of banning bags outright is the way to go. Many say that the bags may be designed as single-use, but they’re not used that way. Plastic bags are reused as lunch bags, trash bags and wrappings for smelly things such as cat litter, diapers and dog waste. A plastic industry group called the American Progressive Bag Alliance, which is based in Washington, D.C., fights against plastic bag bans and taxes nationwide. According to the alliance, whose motto is “Bag the ban,” plastic bags can be recycled, cost less and are more environmentally friendly than the paper bags that often replace them.
Some Mainers, such as Belfast restaurateur Ryan Otis, believe that plastic bag and Styrofoam usage simply should not be regulated by local government. Otis, who owns Rollie’s Bar and Grill, has used those items for years to package takeout orders from his busy downtown restaurant.
“Being told how to operate my business — that rankles,” he said. “If it hadn’t been an outright ban, if it had been more of ‘we feel like this is a good idea, and we want you to be part of it,’ we might feel differently about the issue.”
As it stands, he’s not exactly an eager adopter. Otis has found a type of foam container to use that is made of extruded polystyrene, which was not banned by the city. He’ll also be replacing regular plastic carryout bags with bioplastic bags, which are made from cornstarch and biodegrade more readily than plastics made from fossil fuels. Otis knows he might be obeying the letter but certainly not the spirit of the new ordinance, and he’s OK with that.
“I know it sounds kind of petty, but pennies turn to dollars and dollars turn to more,” Otis said. “And things like this should go to referendum.”
In York, a town that did ask residents to vote on its proposed plastic bag ordinance in 2015, longtime environmental advocate Victoria Simon was nervous while waiting for the referendum results to come in. She and others who volunteered with Bring Your Own Bag York had spent nearly two years educating the town and talking to people about the bag ban everywhere they could.
“I had no idea if it would pass. I had never done this before,” she said. “I was scared, but I felt like we had done everything we possibly could.”
When the results were tallied, nearly 59 percent of York voters decided they could live without the plastic bags. Simon was delighted. Since the ordinance went into effect, pushback has been minimal, she said.
“People have gotten used to it. I think that’s the lesson: people do adapt to these changes,” she said. “My hope moving forward is that there will be a statewide ban on disposable plastic.”
Lakewood, the advocate with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, also hopes that there eventually will be a statewide ban. She said that at almost every recent legislative session, a plastic bag ban has come up. While there hasn’t been enough support to carry those proposals through to become state law, that will change, she thinks.
“With all this momentum, and more and more towns doing it, I think it’s going to tip the scales more towards having a statewide policy,” she said, adding that it likely would be easier for large businesses to have a single bag policy than the current piecemeal approach.
Some Maine companies such as Hannaford have decided to wait for municipalities to institute ordinances before they change their own bag policy.
“We actually have a very consistent approach that this is a local decision, that this is something that the communities have been deciding,” said Eric Blom, a Hannaford Bros. spokesman.
But Goodwill of Northern New England has a different strategy. The company’s 2018 resolution was to rid its 29 stores in Maine, New Hampshire and northern Vermont of plastic bags, according to Goodwill spokesperson Heather Steeves. Previously, stores offered shoppers plastic bags, and in 2017, they used 3 million of them. Stores officially went bag free as of Jan. 1, 2018, and so far this year, the company estimates it has saved about half a million plastic bags.
“We encourage shoppers to bring in their own reusable bag, and if they don’t have one, we try to offer one,” Steeves said. “Goodwill is all about sustainability. That’s what we do and it’s who we are … plastic bags are such a contributor to ocean pollution, and it didn’t make sense for Goodwill to contribute to that anymore.”
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