Portland bag, foam regulations not ready for City Council

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PORTLAND — Proposals to ban polystyrene food containers and charge fees for non-reusable shopping bags remained before a City Council committee after a March 19 public hearing.

Councilor David Marshall, chairman of the Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee, said the ordinances could be sent to a full council vote later this spring, but only after his panel next month reviews questions about how a 10-cent bag fee can be assessed, and environmental questions about polystyrene containers.

The proposed ordinance to charge fees on paper and plastic bags drew opposition from business owners, including Andy Charles of Haven’s Candies. Supporters included Glen Brand, Sierra Club Maine Chapter director.

Charles said the proposed ordinance, which would allow business owners to keep four cents of the fee, is costly and misguided.

“If you want people to change, don’t hit them over the head,” he said.

Brand called the proposals “common-sense ordinances” that will protect the environment and especially marine wildlife endangered by plastic bags that end up in ecosystems.

Brand cited a Sept. 26, 2008, article in The Wall Street Journal reporting the annual death toll for wildlife ingesting the bags at 1 billion.

He urged councilors to join with communities including Nantucket, Mass., Portland, Ore., Los Angeles County and Washington, D.C., that regulate the distribution of plastic bags.

Marshall said one question in need of study is whether the four cents to be kept by businesses would be viewed as taxable income by the state.

The business share of the fee is intended to defray costs of implementation and administration of the bag fee. But Charles said it was insufficient; he estimated it would cost at least $1,000 to reprogram store cash registers to assess the fee.

“I would have to tax 25,000 bags to recoup the cost,” he said, adding there would be incidental costs, too, such as training employees.

In January, a council-appointed Green Packaging Working Group, with Councilor Ed Suslovic as chairman, began drafting the ordinance establishing the bag fee for stores and restaurants. Stores where food sales are less than 2 percent of the gross sales would be exempt from the fees.

Marshall said the balance between environmental and economic impacts would require some compromises as the ordinance moves forward.

“The task force’s recommendations are not going to be sent to council in entirety,” Marshall said.

Charles said practical measures like putting lids on recycling containers used for solid waste pickup would alleviate litter. He said the bag fees should be given wider consideration by the city.

“It will harm my business, maybe a little, maybe a lot, but it will hurt my business,” he said. “If you think it will be that contentious, put it out to the people.”

The task force began discussing the polystyrene packaging ban a year ago and supported the ban by a 9-6 vote in May 2013.

Councilors decided against voting on the ban last fall, and instead returned it to the committee. Marshall said last week more study is needed on how the materials may break down and whether polystyrene can be recycled.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. 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.