Falmouth to hear opinions about plastic bag ban

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FALMOUTH — The first chance for public input on a possible ordinance to ban the use of single-use plastic bags will be at the Sept. 16 Town Council meeting.

Councilors have indicated a desire to get an ordinance in place by Jan. 1, 2016. The town’s Recycling and Energy Advisory Committee outlined a two-year phase-in system for the ordinance at the last council meeting on Aug. 24.

The first year would include a 5-cent fee on paper and plastic bags at stores with a footprint of 10,000 square feet or more. That would include the town’s six largest retailers: Hannaford supermarket, Shaw’s supermarket, Wal-Mart, Rite Aid, Staples and Goodwill.

The second year would establish an outright ban on all single-use shopping bags, with an optional fee for paper bags.

REAC also proposed exemptions to these rules, including bags for meat, produce, deli foods and dry-cleaned clothes; bags for leaky food, including take-out food, and bags to prevent damage or contamination from other items. The food assistance community would also be exempt from the fee.

Cathy Nichols, a member of the committee, said the panel wants to share the results of its outreach and research in hope of creating “an ordinance suited for Falmouth.”

The 5-cent fee in the first year matches the fee Portland enacted in April. Nichols said it makes “good business sense” to follow Portland’s lead “so we don’t create any business conflict.”

Nichols said plastic thin film, the material used for single-use shopping bags, should be returned to grocery stores and large retailers, where they will be properly recycled. Bags that are recycled at home with single-sort recyclables typically end up at the ecomaine facility in Portland, where they become tangled in the organization’s sorting equipment, or get combined with other plastics and sold for less than market value.

She said these bags also can end up in the ocean or other ecosystems.

“It’s not just about the thin film,” Nichols said, adding she hoped the ordinance would raise awareness about the things people purchase.

Nichols said in addition to the environmental benefit of banning the bags, she sees an opportunity for businesses to start producing more reusable bags.

“One personal mission of mine is to try to improve opportunities for manufacturers in Maine,” Nichols said. “I try to do that whenever I can.”

She said the movement toward reducing reliance on single-use bags needs to be a thoughtful one.

“I don’t want it to be just about a fee and a ban,” Nichols said. “I want people to think about what they bring home and what they put on the curb.”

The Town Council discussed whether it should have ordinance language already written for the forum, but ultimately decided the public should have input first. An opportunity for public input on a fully conceived ordinance will occur later this year.

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

Cathy Nichols is a member of the town’s Recycling and Energy Advisory Committee, which has been working to help craft an ordinance to eventually ban the use of single-use plastic bags in Falmouth. There is a public forum on Sept. 16 about such an ordinance.

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.
  • Chew H Bird

    Ms. Nichols should educate herself on the real issue… People who re-use the “free” “single use” bags will simply switch to thicker plastic bags, purchased for more money, to line their trash cans. Thicker bags mean more waste.

    Having a fee on paper bags, when Maine’s paper industry is slowing down just hastens the demise of jobs in our state.

    Contamination from dirty unwashed fancy shopping bags is a well known issue. Nobody wants to put their food on the conveyor after someone has had their unwashed bags on it. Also, placing food inside these unwashed bags is a definite source of contamination.

    It would be far more purposeful and efficient to target wasteful product packaging than to eliminate the flimsy plastic bags. I reuse all of my plastic bags and look forward to shopping at stores that provide them free of charge. I make it a point to avoid store that charge a fee for plastic bags as that fee goes directly into the stores pocket (in Portland).

    The banning of these bags is feel good policy that does little to fix the real problem of waste management while hurting consumers. There is not any real debate as this type of banning policy is simply bad decision making at its finest.

    • Cathy Nichols

      Personal attacks are never accurate, and generalizations are even more misleading. Human behavior is hard to predict, but it is apparent that consumers are becoming more mindful of unnecessary packaging.

      Extensive research and outreach done by REAC supports the proposed bag ordinance. As previously explained, the proposed ordinance would have a fee system for one year, followed by a ban on plastic single-use bags. You could argue that that approach would benefit paper industries, however I regret to mention that there are no grocery-style paper sack manufacturers in Maine, as energy costs are too high. It’s easy to get caught up in all the counterpoint arguments about bag ordinances when the goal is quite simple: bring your own bag, use less packaging.

      Here are some very basic suggestions for those wringing their hands over the loss of single-use plastic shopping bags.

      1. Trash can liners: use dry cleaning bags, large bags from your shopping mall purchases, or a page of newspaper.

      2. Pet waste: use newspaper bags, or plastic bags from produce, meats and
      other uses that will be exempted by the ordinance. And as a side note,
      yesterday I chose three thin plastic bags for my groceries, happy to pay for
      them as I was running low on my dog waste bag supply. I laid them out to fold
      them away, and to my great disappointment saw a hole in the bottom of each one, certain disaster for carrying something you never want sprayed on your clothes during your walk.

      Your claim about contamination in re-useable bags is poorly documented and greatly over-exaggerated. Almost all ordinances have exemptions that allow plastic for bagging leaky purchases that could contaminate a reusable bag. Yes, it is very important to remind consumers to wash their reusable bags. I’m hoping the reusable bag market produces more breathable or mesh bags that don’t trap moisture that could harbor bacteria.

      I agree that packaging can be wasteful, and that it has grown into a gargantuan enterprise. Ordinances like the one proposed by REAC is part of a grass-root system, a phrase that implies growing and expanding to other important causes. A bag ordinance is a step toward raising awareness and implementing policies to reduce waste. Challenging the status quo can cause anger and annoyance, but can bring about necessary change. Year after year the amount of waste our society generates increases, and it’s time for all of us to begin to do something about it.

      • Chew H Bird

        Foodsafety.gov has some good information on reusable bags. The University of Arizona and Loma Linda University did a study showing 97% of people do not wash their reusable bags and… Use them for many things other than food. 84 bags were tested for bacteria and all but one had “whopping” amounts found. Half the bags had coliform bacteria, and 12% had E. Coli.

        What about the risk of consumers using their shopping bags for the picnic at the beach? Keeping a bag clean isn’t just about what happens at the store. Once control over cleanliness becomes the responsibility of the consumer (not the store) we have a whole new set of problems in keeping our food safe in regards to responsibility for the contamination and the lawyers will have a field day…

        I am all for saving waste, but with foodborn illness being more of a problem for most of us, plus pesticides on the outside of most fruit, and the personal habits of people regarding cleanliness, I have severe doubts as to whether banning the “significantly less risk” plastic bags is the proper way to proceed.

        Additionally, many people do not go to the mall (or shopping for larger items) on a regular basis, and many (like myself) have not required dry cleaning services in years as we buy clothes that do not require dry cleaning as the chemicals are a known hazard.

    • Scott Harriman

      Why switch to thicker bags? You can buy 1000 grocery bags on eBay for $20.

      That’s what I plan to do when I can’t get them for free any more.

      • Chew H Bird

        And the point is is people are now purchasing bags, at whatever the price, and using (disposing) of them the net gain is essentially zero. I have been doing a bit more research (with my uneducated brain) and apparently (correct me if I am wrong), the supposedly single use bags cost less to make, cost less to purchase, weigh enough less to significantly reduce transportation (delivery costs) on a per bag basis, and are cleaner and greener to actually manufacture than paper bags when the total life of the bag and associated costs are taken as a whole. Upsetting for me to say it, but the bags do biodegrade over time so all we are really talking about is the length of time for the bags to degrade, and for this consumers pay a fee?

        • Scott Harriman

          The net gain is greater than zero because many bags are currently disposed of without ever being reused.

          Technically, yes, the plastic bags do biodegrade, but it takes hundreds of years. During that time, they also break into small pieces that are harmful to marine life.

          Paper bags, on the other hand, break down very quickly — I would guess within a few weeks or months — and do not pose any harm to wildlife.

          • Chew H Bird

            If trash collection and recycling collection services are unable to secure the bags properly so they become problematic for marine life, the system of collection needs to be changed. While the current problem may be bags escaping into the environment, sooner or later the problem will recur if collection and containment technology fails to address the cause.

            Also, if (in my informal, uneducated, and un-verifiable study of costs and green-ness, the plastic bags are actually (creation to disposal) less polluting than paper bags, we are actually not accomplishing much in the greater scheme of reducing our pollution footprint. Disposable bags are a visible issue, but I perceive manufacturer packaging as (generally) far more harmful to the environment.

  • JS

    Northern Europeans tote their own bags around and bag contamination doesn’t seem to be an issue. If you forget your own bag, the only option is to purchase a reusable, hefty bag for approximately $2.50. It’s incentive enough to retrain shopping habits to encourage shoppers to bring their own tote bags.
    A well written and educated response, Ms. Nichols. Thank you for providing a level headed reply.

    • Chew H Bird

      I was too harsh in my initial approach and that was wrong. However there is another side to the issue that is not being addressed which is in the event of a foodborne illness or outbreak how do we control the entire transport chain if people bring their own bags?

      Lets say there is some sort of outbreak, (meat is a good example), and a supermarket obtains tainted product. The butchers cut up the meat, package it for consumption, and there is an outbreak of some sort resulting in sick people and a recall.

      While I suspect regulations are in place to contain such an outbreak, if the butcher handling the meat also handles the packaging, contamination occurs on the outside of the product.

      I see many shoppers now handling their packages and putting them in their reusable bags. When they get to the checkout they take the products out of the bags and place them on the conveyor where they are then returned to the bag. A recall occurs, the source of the contamination corrected, and everyone is happy.

      Then a person who purchased contaminated product comes back to the store, with the same shopping bag, and the problem recurs because that person put products in the bag, changed their mind, put them back in the meat case, and another person handles them and takes them home.

      We are not perfect people and I suspect the majority do not comprehend the detail necessary to maintain cleanliness throughout the entire food process. By re-using (especially cloth) bags we are setting ourselves up for self inflicted inability to recover from problems inherent with our food supply.

  • Bowdoin81

    Get real.
    Who is going to lug bags into Wal-Mart and Staples?
    Not I, that’s for sure.
    This is a jump-on-the-bandwagon, feel-good solution in search of a problem.
    It’s no one’s job to make me more “thoughtful” about what I purchase.
    I’m already plenty thoughtful about every dime I spend.

    • Scott Harriman

      “Who is going to lug bags into Wal-Mart and Staples?
      Not I, that’s for sure.”

      Is there a reason why? I do it every time I get groceries. It’s not hard.