Brunswick council has praise, questions for bag fee proponents

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BRUNSWICK — The citizens group proposing a fee on single-use shopping bags and a ban on polystyrene foam for food and beverage packaging was greeted with guarded support Monday by the Town Council.

Bring Your Own Bag-Midcoast, which announced in a press conference Oct. 13 that it had more than 1,000 signatures on a petition for the two measures, is proposing a 5-cent fee on single-use bags in Brunswick and Topsham, and an all-out ban on polystyrene foam food packaging.

Members describe the measures as similar to those in Portland, with one key difference: the bag fee would apply to all retail stores, not just those with food sales of 2 percent or more.

Under BYOBM’s language, retailers would keep the 5-cent fee. Dry cleaners, restaurants, newspapers and stores that re-use plastic bags would be exempt from the fee, “because there’s no good alternative,” BYOBM co-founder Marcia Harrington said Monday.

The group included paper bags in the proposed fee, Harrington said, because they consume more energy in production and cost more for retailers to buy.

The leaders of BYOBM were introduced to the council Monday night by Alex Anesko, chairman of the town’s Recycling and Sustainability Committee.

Anesko called the group’s proposals “solid and conservative,” saying they are based on programs that have been “implemented successfully” around the state and country.

“We endorse them wholeheartedly,” he said.

In her presentation to the council, Harrington said the group had been “studying the issue of plastics in the environment since January.”

Humans have caused millions of tons of plastics to be littered in the world’s oceans, she said, which has increased significance for communities in coastal Maine.

“(We’re putting) all this plastic into the very thing that keeps our economy sustained,” she said.

She also said the group has conducted interviews with more than 70 Brunswick businesses, and secured endorsements from more than two dozen stores and restaurants.

“Will this hurt small businesses?,” Harrington said. “No.”

As of Oct. 21, the group had gathered 1,072 signatures, according to its website,

Members have also raised $2,000 of a $5,000 pledge to buy and distribute reusable bags, Harrington said, and hope Hannaford Bros. will distribute free reusable bags, as it did in Portland.

After the presentation, councilors expressed a range of reactions, from questions to statements of support.

“This is interesting, I’ll give you that,” Councilor John Perreault said.

But, he said, he is concerned about enforceability, because the town doesn’t have a specific code enforcement officer to monitor ordinances like the ones proposed.

“(We’d) either need to hire or create a new position,” Perreault said.

He also took issue with the proposed exemptions. If plastics are “really so bad for the environment,” he said, “step up and be a leader and take it all the way, if you’re going to do it.”

Councilor Kathy Wilson, one of the measures’ sponsors, expressed support for the initiatives, citing a recent trip to the dump with her family.

“(We were) disgusted and stunned … at the number of plastic bags just everywhere,” she said.

“There is a need” for these measures, she added.

Councilor Steve Walker, the other sponsor, pushed even further.

“Ban plastic bags, and ban Styrofoam,” he said at the end of the discussion.

One member of the public spoke at the meeting. Topsham resident Heather Archer said she is not in favor of the measures, and “(didn’t) know many working Mainers that are.”

“For somebody who works … I don’t see how this is going to benefit the people of Maine,” she added.

Council Chairwoman Sarah Brayman asked the Recycling and Sustainability Committee to take the measures back to committee, and work with BYOBM to review the proposals in the context of what they’d heard that night.

“I heard strong support and strong questions about this issue,” she said.

Brunswick is not the only town looking at regulating single-use bags and polystyrene foam; South Portland has enacted similar ordinances, and Freeport and Falmouth are looking at their own versions of bag fees, bag bans and foam bans.

In an interview Tuesday, Councilor Jane Millet said she saw the support in Brunswick and Topsham for this issue as pretty overwhelming.

“There was one person who objected, and a thousand signatures,” she said.

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.