PORTLAND — The City Council may soon consider a proposed ban on polystyrene foam food containers, after a council committee voted 2-1 to recommend its passage.
Councilor David Marshall, chairman of the committee, and Councilor Kevin Donoghue, the vice chairman, voted in favor of the ban. Councilor Cheryl Leeman was opposed.
With the July 17 vote, the committee accepted the recommendations of a task force that has worked since March to draft an ordinance banning use of the plastic, some of which is marketed under the brand name Styrofoam.
Critics claim the foam is environmentally hazardous because it’s not biodegradable and is impractical to recycle.
“Expanded polystyrene foam for all intents and purposes is not biodegradable. It takes an awful long time, and (the foam) products survive. They end up in the water and they’re a significant source of pollution,” said Councilor Ed Suslovic, who chaired the task force.
Suslovic told the committee that the task force was reassured by the experience of the town of Freeport, which banned polystyrene foam packaging two decades ago.
“In 20 years of this ordinance, (Freeport officials) never had to issue a fine or a summons, and in fact in the recent past they’ve never had to send out a letter,” Suslovic said.
But Leeman was concerned about the impact of banning a substance that businesses rely upon without knowing what the economic impact of the ban might be.
“I’m in a quandary because I don’t have enough data to support the ban,” she said. “And I don’t think a comparison to Freeport passes the straight-face test. Freeport is very different from Portland. There’s just no comparison.”
Meanwhile, a group calling itself the Cost of Government Center has launched a website that disputes the environmental criticism and claims that the costs of switching from the foam packaging to other forms would be costly. The website, cleanerportland. com, calls for the public to oppose the ban and voice objections to councilors.
Despite the concern about potential costs, Marshall expressed greater concern about the environmental dangers of polystyrene foam.
“For me, it comes down to biodegradability,” he said. “Our oceans are filling up with this plastic, and there’s no other option than for it to break into smaller pieces of plastic. That’s a big problem for the sustainability of our planet.”
Donoghue said he was not convinced that businesses would be financially harmed by outlawing the foam packaging.
“I heard the comments regarding the impact on some actors of switching over to a more sustainable material, but I couldn’t find those hardships to be formidable,” he said.
In other business, the committee voted unanimously to accept recommendations for improving the city’s system of directional traffic signs.
With $50,000 in funding from the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System, the city has been working with civic groups, business people and a consultant to modernize the hodgepodge collection of aging signs.
Bill Needelman, senior planner with the city, summarized recommendations for that work, including possible graphic designs and placement of the signs.
One suggested feature of the signs was the use of the city’s new marketing slogan, “Portland, Maine. Yes. Life’s good here.” But Donoghue objected to that recommendation.
“Slogans don’t have a long shelf life,” he said.
Both the sign recommendations and the polystyrene foam ban will now be referred to the full council for consideration. It’s unclear when those items will appear on a council agenda.