Foam packaging ban heads to Portland City Council, plastic bag fee still under discussion

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PORTLAND — City councilors will vote on a proposed ban on food and beverage containers made of polystyrene foam, but an ordinance to charge fees for plastic take-out bags at supermarkets and convenience stores remains on hold.

As of Tuesday, no information was available on when the council will consider the foam ban.

The Council Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee, with Councilor David Marshall as chairman, voted 3-1 on April 16 to forward an ordinance amendment that would ban polystyrene containers by July 1, 2015.

Councilor Cheryl Leeman opposed the amendment, saying the true costs of the ban for businesses and consumers had not been examined.

“We are losing sight of the cumulative effect of these decisions we make,” said Leeman, who has also signalled her opposition to fees for plastic shopping bags.

The proposed ban means retail vendors could not serve or sell prepared food, or package meat, eggs, bakery products or other food, in polystyrene foam containers. Raw seafood packaging would be exempt.

“Prepared food” includes beverages in the ordinance definitions. The amendments would also ban purchase and use of the containers in city departments and by city contractors.

If a city-wide recycling program approved by the city’s director of public services is developed, the ban would be rescinded.

That provision is a small concession appreciated by Maine Grocers & Food Producers Association Executive Director Shelly Doak, who served on the task force created by the City Council to look into a possible ban on the containers.

Doak and others compiled a minority report opposing any ban on the grounds that polystyrene alternatives require more energy to produce, are not necessarily biodegradable, are less sanitary, and will be costly for retailers and consumers.

She said Tuesday she will continue to oppose the proposed ban, which is also contested by the Maine Restaurant Association and American Chemistry Council. Supporters of the ban include the Conservation Law Foundation and the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

Doak, who heads an association of 400 members covering all aspects of food production, packaging and sales, agreed with Leeman that full study of the ban’s potential economic impact is needed, and said comparisons to a Freeport ban on polystyrene enacted in 1990 are not relevant.

“The economic effects will be wider and greater felt in Portland,” Doak said.

Not only would a ban include carry-out “clamshell” food containers and foam cups, it would also require grocers and butchers who repackage food to switch containers. Doak said that could also include the liners used to absorb liquid.

“The breadth of the food service containers the ban will cover is pretty significant,” Doak said.

Councilor Jon Hinck said his research, combined with data presented by Troy Moon, the city manager of environmental programs and open space, convinced him the ban is needed.

Hinck acknowledged polystyrene would not end up in a landfill because the city’s non-recyclable trash is burned, not buried, at ecomaine.

“(But) the impact in the marine environment is a big consideration,” he added.

Marshall said an American Chemistry Council report submitted last month convinced him a ban is needed.

“It is irrefutable (polystyrene) is not biodegradable,” Marshall said. “I have not seen any studies that point to negative impacts for businesses.”

The council first considered a ban on polystyrene last September before returning the question and the one about a fee or ban on plastic bags to the Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee.

The question on plastic bags remained in the committee for at least another month as councilors considered a possible fee, how it could be distributed, and whether an overall ban was in order.

City staff attorney Jennifer Thompson was asked to draft an ordinance that will not ban the bags, but could place a fee on plastic and paper bags distributed at cash registers, as opposed to bags used for items such as vegetables.

Thompson was also asked to eliminate restaurants and dry cleaners from charging for bags, and to seek an opinion from the Maine Revenue Service on whether bag fees would be taxable.

Committee members were leaning toward allowing retailers to keep the entire bag fee, a change from a prior proposal for the city to collect 6 cents of a 10-cent-per-bag fee.

But by not collecting any part of the fee, Councilor Kevin Donoghue also said he would like a legal opinion on whether the city could set a specific fee, since it would then be setting a commodity price on an item for sale.

While supporting fees on plastic and paper bags, Marshall said the city should not get a share.

“(It is) the only way I would see the fee as being fair,” he said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.