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Portland targets use of plastic shopping bags, polystyrene packaging

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Portland targets use of plastic shopping bags, polystyrene packaging

PORTLAND — A City Council task force on Monday began drafting an ordinance that would charge grocery and convenience-store shoppers a 10-cent "waste reduction fee" for each disposable bag used to package their purchases.

Councilor Ed Suslovic, chairman of the Green Packaging Working Group, said the council could consider the ordinance in the next few months, with the surcharge going into effect by the end of the year.

He also predicted that a ban on polystyrene foam food packaging, a much-debated prohibition proposed by the group, but which has been tabled since September, could be reconsidered by the council at the same time.

"I'm optimistic that the council will have a comprehensive (packaging regulation) to consider by April," he said after the group's meeting at City Hall.

The waste reduction fee would apply to plastic and paper bags, and is intended to discourage their use. According to the ordinance, disposable bags are a source of litter, block storm drains, and endanger wildlife.

More than 100 ordinances in 17 states already ban plastic shopping bags or impose fees on them.

Under the ordinance proposed in Portland, stores would get to keep 40 percent of the fees charged, in order to administer the program, train staff, and educate customers about recycling of disposable bags and alternatives such as reusable ones. The city would receive 60 percent of the fees, and would use the funds for a variety of environmental clean-up measures.

Some of the city money would be used to provide reusable bags for low-income residents on food-assistance programs.

On Monday, most of the working group's 21 members, who include environmental advocates, business leaders and city residents, seemed to support – or at least accept – the imposition of a fee.

But details still must be worked out.

Some members said the fee should be charged in other businesses that use plastic bags, such as dry-cleaning shops and restaurants that provide take-out service. Other members felt the bookkeeping requirements imposed on merchants by the ordinance were too burdensome.

"(The accounting requirements) are a little overboard, and I think unnecessary," said Shelley Doak, a working group member representing the Maine Grocers Association.

City staff will be revising the ordinance in preparation for the working group's next meeting on Jan. 27. At that meeting, the group may vote to recommend the ordinance to the council's Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee, which would then make its own recommendation on passage to the full council.

Meanwhile, the TSE Committee is also considering changes to the proposed ban on polystyrene foam food packaging. The ubiquitous plastic, some of which is marketed under the brand name Styrofoam, is environmentally hazardous and can't be readily recycled, many people claim.

The working group drafted the ban last spring, and in July the TSE Committee recommended it to the council. But after opponents argued the ban was too burdensome on businesses and wasn't clearly written, the council returned it to the committee for review.

It's not clear yet when the committee will rework the ban.

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or whall@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.