Portland City Council OKs bag fees, bans foam packaging

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PORTLAND — Whether it’s a progressive attempt to protect the environment or a government overreach that burdens businesses and consumers, a 5-cent fee on paper and plastic shopping bags and a ban on polystyrene food and beverage containers are coming next year.

City councilors on Monday voted 6-3 in favor of the new rules. The bag fee will go directly to the stores.

“The thing is, (Portland is) already getting money for rubbish bags,” resident Shirley A. Dame complained as she waited for a taxi Tuesday morning after shopping at the Hannaford Bros. store at 295 Forest Ave.

Dame had a cart holding two weeks worth of groceries – and what will be 40 cents worth of bags when the new fee takes effect April 15, 2015.

Across town on Warren Avenue, Windham resident James Goodine ordered coffee to go at Dunkin’ Donuts. The Pine Tree Paper delivery driver said the foam ban could affect his employer, because he delivers cups to businesses. But he took the ban in stride personally.

“As long as it can hold my coffee and I can drink it, I’m fine,” he said.

Councilors Cheryl Leeman, Nick Mavodones and John Coyne opposed both the polystyrene ban and bag fees, while Councilors Ed Suslovic and David Marshall welcomed the initiatives that took about two years to make it through the council.

“I refer to the gut check a lot, this just doesn’t pass it, it doesn’t feel good,” Coyne said after a two-hour public hearing.

Suslovic, who said his interest in the fees and ban are at least 5 years old, chided opponents for their pessimistic outlook.

“Show me one example, just one, of economic harm done to a community by a polystyrene ban or a bag fee,” he said, repeating a plea he said he has made since leading the city Green Packaging Task Force that studied what to do about foam and plastic bags in the waste stream.

The orders passed Monday have been discussed, tweaked, and last September were sent back to the council Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee that Marshall leads.

Public comment Monday continued to show business groups, including the Maine Restaurant Association, Maine Grocers & Food Producers Association, and American Chemistry Council, opposed the bag fee and foam ban. Residents, including Jim Woodbury, said the bag fee is especially troublesome because it targets supermarkets and convenience stores.

“If we want to do that, why don’t we ban all plastic bags and that will be the end of it?” he asked.

Bancroft Court resident Estelle L’Heureux said councilors just keep piling expenses on residents.

“People are very angry about the fact there are going to be more fees added on. A lot of people feel they are being driven out of the city by increased fees,” she said.

Supporters included the Conservation Law Foundation, Natural Resources Council of Maine, and Maine Sierra Club. Casco Bay High School students Patrick Peter and Lucy Tabb, who studied the environmental consequences of bags and foam ending up in landfills and marine ecosystems, also spoke out.

“If polystyrene was developed in the 1600s, it would still be sitting in our landfills,” Tabb said.

But Leeman disagreed the measures will help reduce litter.

“The two major contributors to litter are humans and weather, and we have control of neither,” she said.

The ban on polystyrene foam would be lifted if ecomaine or another entity designs a recycling program. But Tabb, Peter and others argued the bags and foam are endangering marine life and are a major source of litter. When the materials do break down, they emit toxins that can be carcinogens, they said.

The foam ban exempts raw seafood packaging and allows foam packaging for items shipped to stores. A similar ban was passed in Freeport in 1990, and Suslovic said it shows the ban can be implemented without great cost for enforcement.

He also argued the bag fee is not a tax, because the city will not get a share and consumers can avoid the fee by using their own reusable bags.

Outside Whole Foods on Somerset Street on Tuesday, Parsonsfield resident Brenna Thomas-Googins said she hoped the bag fee would encourage lifestyle and commercial changes.

“I think it is awesome,” she said, shouldering a filled canvas bag. “We just keep (the bags) in the front of the car.”

She added she also sometimes sees cashiers ready to provide bags for small purchases.

“If I’m getting three items I just carried (to the cash register), I can take them to the car (without a bag),” she said.

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.