Brunswick council weighs plastic-bag ban, fee

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BRUNSWICK — With a ban on polystyrene containers scheduled to take effect Oct. 1, the Town Council is considering whether to ban plastic bags as well, or simply impose a fee for their use.

The Recycling and Sustainability Committee, in conjunction with the citizens group Bring Your Own Bag, argued at a Monday night council workshop that an outright ban on plastic bags is not their top choice for Brunswick. As proposed, the fee would only apply to stores where food sales account for more than 2 percent of sales.

Councilors Suzan Wilson, Dan Harris and Jane Millett were absent from the Sept. 26 workshop. Representatives who did attend from both panels made the case for a 5-cent fee on plastic and paper bags, which, they say, would allow time for Brunswick shoppers to adjust to using reusable bags.

It would also mean retailers and consumers would not have to rely solely on paper bags, which would put a significant cost and storage burden on retailers and are also environmentally unfriendly. Paper bags cost 7 to 23 cents, while a plastic bag costs 2 cents, according to the committee’s presentation.

There’s also the matter of consumer choice: sometimes, a plastic bag is necessary, either because it’s raining, or because a shopper needs to transport wet or greasy items.

Ben Martens, a member of the Recycling and Sustainability Committee, presented on the environmental impact of plastic bags, especially on marine environments. He said that plastic bags are the fourth most commonly collected item in coastal cleanups, and that paper bags take four to six times more energy to make than plastic bags and generate 50 times more water pollutants.

The problem also affects industries. Martens, who also directs the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, said that small marine animals like krill and phytoplankton mistake particles from dissolved plastics as food, the effects of which travel up the food chain to larger animals. In other words, plastic-eating krill make for poor meals: over the last 20 years, he said, the size and weight of bigger fish is measurably smaller because of poor nutrition.

The committee presentation also cited a newspaper article that reported Hannaford supermarkets in Portland have seen an 80 percent reduction in single-use bags since a 5-cent fee was enacted in the city in April 2015.

If Brunswick adopts the 5-cent fee, it would follow the lead of Portland, South Portland, and possibly Topsham, which will vote on the measure this November. 

Although the Recycling and Sustainability Committee and BYOB pointed out that their proposed option, unlike neighboring ordinances, would delay the fee one year for families that participate in government benefit programs. BYOB representative Marcia Harrington said the group has already collected a fund of $5,000 to purchase and distribute reusable bags to families in need.

Council Chairwoman Sarah Brayman said the workshop’s purpose was to “take the temperature” of the council’s interest in the matter, and to the weigh the potential options for an ordinance.

Some councilors said they are interested in alternatives to the 5-cent fee on paper and plastic bags, such as a ban on a plastic bags altogether, or town-wide fee that would apply to all retailers, not just grocery stores.

Vice Chairman Steve Walker noted that some big-box retailers seem to hand out plastic bags “hand over fist,” but would not be affected by the committee’s proposed ordinance.

Councilor Perreault advocated that if Brunswick is going to act, it should go “whole hog” and impose the fee on all retailers; this would also prevent confusion among retailers and consumers as to when and where the fee applies.

In their presentation, the Recycling and Sustainability Committee pointed to stores like Hannaford and Wal-Mart as stores that would be affected by the fee. Restaurants would be exempt, but stores that that have both a store and restaurant section – like Harpswell Road’s Lighthouse Variety Deli – would only have to enforce the fee for certain products; Perreault said such a policy might cause confusion.

He was also concerned about how the ordinance would be enforced. Town Manager John Eldridge said similar to the case in Portland, violations would rely on citizen reporting.

The ordinance will likely go before the full council for a vote, although Brayman said the timing is uncertain. The proposed ordinance, which requires changes in language to make it specific to Brunswick, is available on the town’s website.

But based on the enthusiasm of Monday’s discussion, councilors who were present seemed highly interested in reducing single-use bags, and that they would take action at some point.

“I don’t want to get mangled on the fee and lose sight of the fact that we need to do something,” Councilor Kathy Wilson said.

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

A littered plastic shopping bag caught in a tree in Brunswick’s 250th Anniversary Park. The Town Council heard arguments Sept. 26 for a 5-cent fee on single-use paper and plastic bags.

Reporting on municipal, school, and community news in Brunswick and Harpswell. Bowdoin graduate, Wild Oats sandwich-eater. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100, or