South Portland City Council enacts shopping bag fee, food packaging restriction

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SOUTH PORTLAND — City councilors voted unanimously Monday to make South Portland the second city in the state to charge a fee for single-use shopping bags, and to ban polystyrene food containers.

The second reading of the single-use bag ordinance was almost halted by Councilor Tom Blake, who favored an ordinance that would ban single-use bags, too, a path that Falmouth is poised to explore.

Blake’s amendment to the original motion failed 5-2, with Mayor Linda Cohen and Councilors Claude Morgan, Maxine Beecher, Patti Smith, and Brad Fox. Councilor Melissa Linscott voted with Blake.

Starting March 1, 2016, the city will join Portland in requiring food retailers to charge five cents per paper or plastic bag given to consumers. The ordinance will only affect retailers whose food sales exceed 2 percent of gross sales. Fee proceeds will remain with the retailers.

Those same retailers will also be banned from serving or selling food in polystyrene material, including foam coffee cups and takeout containers.

Residents this week had mixed feelings about the council’s decision. 

“I don’t like it because I use the plastic bags to clean up after my dog,” Priscilla Schwartz said Thursday morning in the Shaw’s supermarket parking lot at 180 Waterman Drive. 

Schwartz, a retired Portland school teacher who lives in Cape Elizabeth, but frequently shops in South Portland, said many people live on fixed incomes and “let’s face, it, everyone’s trying to gouge you. I’ll be darned if I pay for it,” she said. 

Albert DiMillo, of South Portland, after shopping at Hannaford in Knightville Thursday morning, said, “I think it’s a stupid law because I don’t think (the bags) are single-use.

“If they want to get rid of plastic bags, they should have just banned them,” he said. 

Other shoppers, like David McLaughlin, of South Portland, said his wife is one of those people who diligently brings reusable bags with her to the grocery, but he isn’t. Nonetheless, he said, “I appreciate that South Portland has taken this measure.”

If the council did the research and thinks it’s a good idea, then “I believe them,” McLaughlin said, and once the nickel fee goes into place, he will  bring his own reusable bags with him. 

Patience Maloney, who moved three months ago from Santa Cruz, California, to Cape Elizabeth with her husband, said they both agree with the ordinance, especially because they’re already in the habit of using reusable bags. 

In Santa Cruz, she said, each single-use bag costs 25 cents, “so we learned to adjust very quickly.” 

Is a fee enough?

On Monday night, Blake argued that in the last few years, when South Portland has come face to face with something residents and councilors believe deleterious to the community as a whole, the city has responded without equivocation.

“When we look at similar issues, like tar sands, we develop an ordinance to ban tar sands. When we look at pesticides … we develop an ordinance and ban pesticides,” Blake said at the Sept. 21 meeting.

“Next item on the agenda, polystyrene … (we develop) an ordinance to ban polystyrene. Why are we treating plastic bags so differently? Why don’t we ban plastic bags?” he asked. 

“Falmouth is, in my opinion, doing it correctly,” said Blake, who at the first reading on Sept. 9 unsuccessfully proposed removing paper bags from the single-use category. 

The proposal on the table in Falmouth would be relatively the same as South Portland’s in the first year.

In the second year, the town is considering banning all single-use bags at all retail stores, and allowing the individual stores the option of still offering paper bags to consumers for a nickel.

In South Portland, councilors had been mostly in agreement about being consistent with Portland’s ordinance. But on Monday night, Blake said he had “no interest” in being consistent.

“What’s most important is we do what’s best for our community,” he said. “What is best for South Portland is that we ban plastic bags.”

The ultimate goal of the single-use bags ordinance, Blake said, is to change consumer behavior. Charging five cents doesn’t ensure that behavioral change, he said. 

“(What we are) doing is charging the consumer more money, (but) we may not be changing the consumer’s behavioral pattern at all,” Blake argued. “This isn’t accomplishing our mission.”

Other councilors balked at Blake’s suggestions and said, instead, that the council should look at this ordinance as an evolving one, and not rule out the possibility of banning single-use bags in the future. 

“Is this perfect legislation? It is not, but what is? We have opportunities to track, monitor, manage, change at any point. It is quite possible that we will be very enamored with Falmouth’s success, which we haven’t seen yet. We’ve only seen a model,” Morgan said. “A smart council would move quickly tonight and get something on the books.”

Ideally, Morgan said, a five-cent fee “is enough to nudge the process, so that we hit that tipping point.”

“Little steps make bigger steps,” he continued. “Little steps inform other ways in which you do things. We’re not here to penalize folks a nickel per bag, we’re here to encourage change of doing business, change of habit, of way of living.”

Rose West, owner of Broadway Variety at 773 Broadway, on Wednesday said she doesn’t have a problem with either ordinance.

West, whose family has owned and operated the variety store since 1981, said she already tries to limit the amount of non-recyclable waste that leaves her store by offering mostly paper bags, voluntarily recycling beer boxes and cigarette cartons, and offering no polystyrene options for customers. 

“This plastic bag container will last me a year,” she said, pointing to a thin box on the bottom shelf, below six different varieties of paper bag. “We just don’t use them as much.”

If anything, she said, “I think South Portland is a pretty good recycling community.”

West’s only criticism of the process, she said, is she wished local business owners had been polled for their opinions.

Council sentiment was more consistent on the ordinance that will ban the sale or distribution of polystyrene by retailers that primarily sell food. 

When the ordinances go into effect March 1, retailers who fail to charge for reusable bags or continue to use polystyrene will receive a warning notice. For the second additional violation within a year, they will be fined $250, and for each subsequent violation, they will be fined $500.

Smith said the ordinances represent the city’s continued pursuit of sustainability, and the concern about how much energy is required to produce these items, she said. 

“That’s the whole piece of being sustainable as a city; we’re thinking globally, we’re thinking broadly,” she said. If we don’t have to make one more paper or one more plastic bag, we’re saving some carbon in the environment.”

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA

Selenna Tompkins, 21, of Cape Elizabeth, restocks paper bags at Broadway Variety in South Portland. The City Council handed down a decision on Monday to implement a nickel fee for single-use paper and plastic bags and to ban polystyrene at food retailers starting March 1. Adjusting to that change won’t be an inconvenience, said Broadway Variety owner Rose West, who rarely uses plastic bags for bagging and doesn’t have any polystyrene in the store. 

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.
  • philip62

    So basically this just applies to Shaw’s and Hannaford! What about the Mall? They give out more plastic bags then the both of them together. If your going to band the bags them band them everywhere. All this does is target the consumer. Shaw’s and Hannaford are charging enough for groceries without the city enabling them to make more profits. Can’t wait for Market Basket to get here.

    • SierraTango

      It applies to any store whose sales are more than 2% food, so based on that it would also apply to Target, Irving, Cumberland Farms, Subway, Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, Smaha’s, Scratch, the farmers’ market, and probably several others. (Those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head.)

      I agree with you that it’s a double standard.