Portland panel floats ban on plastic shopping bags

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PORTLAND — A City Council committee will discuss a possible ban on disposable plastic shopping bags and requiring businesses to charge a fee for paper bags provided to customers.

The Energy and Environmental Sustainability Committee on Thursday will hear a presentation from the Surfrider Foundation, a California-based nonprofit ocean advocacy group, about the negative environmental impacts of plastic bags. 

Included in the committee’s background material is a model ordinance that would ban disposable plastic bags. It would institute a charge of 10 cents per bag for paper bags and require store owners to provide customers with reusable bags – either for free or for a fee.

Under the model ordinance, store owners would keep the fee income, to fund education efforts and compliance with the ordinance. They could also be fined for violating the rules.

The meeting materials indicate Ireland instituted a 15-cent-a-bag fee, which reduced usage by 93.5 percent “almost overnight.” Washington, D.C., reportedly instituted a 5-cent fee in January 2010, resulting in an estimated 80 percent drop in usage.

City Councilor David Marshall, the committee chairman, said this is the beginning of discussion about the environmental impact of plastic bags. The preliminary discussion could lead to some sort of regulation, or none at all, he said.

“It’s a starting point to understand the impact of plastic bags on our environment and how municipalities are creating policies concerning plastic bags,” Marshall said.

According to meeting materials to be considered by the committee, plastics account for 90 percent of floating marine debris. Eighty percent of that comes from land-based sources.

An estimated 100,000 marine mammals and as many as one million sea birds die each year after ingesting or being entangled in plastics, the memo said.

Although plastic bags can be recycled, the committee is being told that happens to less than 5 percent of plastic bags, because it is cheaper for companies to make new bags.

Even when consumers believe they are recycling their plastic bags that may not be the case. The memo said many facilities send the plastics to another country to be disposed of or burned.

That may to be the case in Portland, too.

“(Plastic bags) are sold to a broker and shipped overseas,” ecomaine Program Development Manager Missy Labbe said in the memo, noting the broker does not disclose the fate of the bags.

It’s not clear whether the proposal will have support on the committee, which includes three city councilors.

Councilor and committee member Edward Suslovic said the committee would be better served by considering other waste-cutting proposals, such as a new school composting project.

If successful, Suslovic said, the city could first eliminate the use of Styrofoam in schools and possibly extend that ban citywide.

“You lead by example,” he said.”I think that’s how you proceed.”

The third member of the committee, City Councilor Jill Duson, could not be reached for comment.

Marshall said the meeting is a chance to begin a discussion that has generated community interest.

“There was some interest raised about it,” he said. “Committee members may think it’s a good idea and start moving forward. … We also may decide it’s better to leave our policies the way they are.”

The meeting is scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 6, at 6:30 p.m. in council chambers at City Hall.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings