Falmouth fee on single-use shopping bags takes effect April 1

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FALMOUTH — Customers at the town’s six largest retail stores will have to pay a 5-cent fee for single-use plastic and paper shopping bags starting April 1.

The Town Council on Monday night unanimously amended the code of ordinances to regulate the bags.

According to the ordinance language, the 5-cent fee on paper and plastic single-use shopping bags applies to stores “with a floor area whose square footage exceeds 10,000 square feet.” Shaw’s, Hannaford Bros., Wal-Mart, Rite Aid, Staples, and Goodwill will all be affected; proceeds from the fee will remain with the retailers.

Falmouth will be the third community in the area to regulate the bags. Portland enacted similar regulation last April and South Portland will follow suit March 1. Brunswick is exploring regulation, and Freeport is planning an advisory town referendum on a plastic bag fee.

The conversation on regulation of single-use bags dates to June 2014, when residents asked the council to consider the issue. The town’s Recycling and Energy Advisory Committee was asked to research the issue and craft recommendations.

The committee eventually came back with a recommendation that would have banned thin plastic bags over a two-year phased-in system. The first year would have included a 5-cent fee on paper and plastic bags at the large retailers. The second year would have established the outright ban on single-use plastic bags, with an optional fee for paper bags.

But members of the ordinance committee decided to first give the fee system a chance. Council Vice Chairman Russell Anderson, who chairs the ordinance committee, said phasing into a ban would come with the assumption that a fee would be ineffective.

The ordinance committee unanimously recommended instituting the fee. However, councilors in the past have said if the fee system does prove to be ineffective, they may take another look at a ban.

Falmouth’s regulation excludes dine-in and take-out restaurants, dry cleaners, horticultural nurseries and commercial greenhouses. Other exemptions include bags used exclusively to carry produce, meats and other food items and merchandise to the point of sale, or used to prevent those foods from directly touching other foods. Bags provided by pharmacists containing prescription drugs are also exempt.

The ordinance language also defines reusable bags as being at least 4 millimeters thick. Portland uses the standard 2.25-millimeter thickness, which means a wider variety of bags are subject to regulation.

Anderson said staff have contacted the six businesses affected by the ordinance. He said one of the businesses asked for an amendment to the ordinance to allow the business to sell plastic bags thinner than 4 millimeters, but thicker than the single-use bags for 10 cents and market them as reusable. The council ultimately decided not to amend the ordinance.

“We want to change people’s patterns,” Councilor Charlie McBrady said. He said the thought was that the ordinance would change the culture of how people shop, and allowing the amendment would be “skirting the original idea.”

Anderson said there is nothing to stop the retailer from selling bags for 10 cents or any other price, but the business cannot market the bags as reusable.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

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Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.