South Portland council: ‘It’s time’ for bag fee, packaging ban

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SOUTH PORTLAND — A single-use bag fee and ban on polystyrene in the city seem increasingly likely after Monday night’s City Council workshop.

How similar the ordinance language should be to Portland’s, and whether to go beyond the limits of that ordinance, remains to be decided.

The question for councilors was not if, but when.

“I personally think, like it or not, it’s time,” Councilor Maxine Beecher said.

“There’s a lot of bad stuff we’ve done for the sake of convenience in our lives, but now it’s all coming back to haunt us,” Mayor Linda Cohen added.

In late June, City Hall staff joined representatives from other municipalities in the Greater Portland Council of Governments that are also interested in adopting some version of the measures Portland enacted in April.

Two things became clear early on, City Manager Jim Gailey told councilors: “Not a lot of communities are pursuing the ban on polystyrene, and all communities at the meeting were at a different place when it came to single-use bags.”

Ultimately, the city decided to pursue the effort independently, and for the sake of consistency, draw an ordinances similar, if not the same, as Portland’s.

Staff believes that using Portland’s ordinance language is “a good first step,” Gailey said. “We want consistency within the region. For consistency’s sake, we looked at the Portland ordinance to see if it’s something South Portland wants to adopt.”

Portland has a five-cent fee for single-use bags, paper and plastic. It applies to all businesses that serve mostly food, except those where the sale of foods is less than 2 percent of gross sales. The aim is to target groceries and similar retailers, which dole out single-use bags in large quantities.

The ban on polystyrene also targets food and beverage retailers. Vendors are prohibited from using polystyrene in the packaging of prepared food, meat, eggs, bakery products, and beverage containers. Exemptions include raw seafood packaging.

Andy Hackman, a lobbyist for Michigan-based Dart Container Corp., which produces single-use containers, told the council that polystyrene is “100 percent recyclable,” and that making “polystyrene cups take less energy to produce than paper cups and the alternative.”

He also said the alternative containers typically cost more to produce.

Hackman asked the council to consider letting Dart set up infrastructure within the city to collect and recycle used polystyrene containers for free.

But Councilor Claude Morgan said the issue with polystyrene is two-pronged, and goes beyond Hackman’s assertions that the materials are recyclable.

“You see the residue of those products in our swamps, in our wetlands. If you’re looking for polystyrene to take back with you … you need look no further than the wetlands along our Greenbelt,” Morgan said.

“That’s the problem, that’s what we’re fighting here,” he continued. “The issue is the longevity of the product in the environment, and the fact that it is so light and so easily airborne, that’s why it’s hard to control, (and) bring back into the (waste) stream.”

Replacing polystyrene with a more compostable material would at least ensure that “once they hit the human trash stream, they’re composed of something that can degrade very quickly,” Morgan said.

Councilor Tom Blake also questioned whether for polystyrene specifically, it’s worth considering extending a ban to large retailers that sell products like electronics and household goods packaged in polystyrene.

“The bigger question is the extent of the article,” Blake said. “… If you’re talking about volume, there may be a heck of a lot more of that in South Portland than there is in coffee cups and food packaging. If indeed we want to take this a little further, I think we need to do a little more homework.”

Gailey was charged with continuing to research the measure before reconvening with the council sometime in the fall. He said it would take at least six months to a year to institute an ordinance.

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



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.
  • Chew H Bird

    I stopped in Portland for a few items while travelling. I was asked if I wanted a bag. I said ok. I was charged for the bag. I am fine with that except for one thing… I was not informed that I would be charged for the bag.

    If municipalities are going to require retailers to charge consumers for bags, the consumer must be made aware of the charge prior to the sale being completed, otherwise it is just a “shady practice”.

    Also, when I think of the increase in sales of small trash bags to line home and office trash cans (due to the no longer “free” bags), I am uncertain of the net reduction is actually statistically relevant since boxed retail trash bags obviously are better made (more plastic) than the flimsy “formerly free” bags.

    Why not focus on excessive packaging for retail goods rather than the highly compressible bags?

    Also, Maine is a state known for paper production. It is simply wrong to charge for paper bags. We should be promoting our paper industry rather than expediting its demise.

    • SierraTango

      I do believe the Portland ordinance requires retailers to make the bag fee plainly visible to customers, via signs and whatnot. If certain retailers are not doing that, they are in violation of the ordinance.

      Councilor Blake brought up the same point about Maine’s paper industry, and he also questioned why there should be a fee on paper bags. I suspect that may be one area where South Portland’s ordinance, if enacted, will differ from Portland’s ordinance.

    • SierraTango

      Text from the Portland ordinance:

      (d) All Stores must post signage clearly indicating the per bag charge for Single-Use Carryout Bags.

    • SierraTango

      If the store you went to did not have the required signage, you should report them to the city of Portland.

  • The Pope

    Ciao, it’s me, The Pope. Me and Ex-Pope Benny are confused. Why would these city council people want a big tax? Don’t the South Portland people already have a lot of tax? Me and Benny, we like small tax, not big tax.
    Mazel tov.
    The Pope
    At Sherwin Williams to get some paint for the Sistine Chapel ceiling
    Vatican City

  • SierraTango

    The headline and first line of the article are not accurate. The proposal is for a bag fee which would be kept by the retailers. The fee is not going to the city. It’s not a tax.

    • beachmom H

      Why would the city reimburse the retailers for the cost of the bags?
      That would be a subsidy to businesses.
      That doesn’t make sense. The businesses already build the cost of the bags into the products they sell.

      • SierraTango

        I guess in theory the retailers could lower the prices on their merchandise in order to reflect the increased transparency of having customers pay for only the bags they use…?

  • The Pope

    Me again, The Pope. Whew, you South Portland people are very much lucky to have all the great bands. You know, The Tar Sands Band, The Pesticide Band and now The Plastic Bag Band. If they ever have the jam session at the Mill Creek Park, shoot me a text, will ya? Me and Ex-Pope Benny would be down with seeing that.
    Mazel tov.
    The Pope
    Trying to get a spaghetti stain out of my robe
    Vatican City

    • beachmom H

      I remember when the plastic bags were brought in because it would save trees. Now they want to do away with plastic.
      Who didn’t see this happening way back when?

  • Alex Acquisto

    Thanks for writing, @SierraTango:disqus. When I wrote “tax,” I chose that word because it isn’t yet clear whether the nickel charge would go to the retailers themselves, or to a different outlet, possibly to fund environmental education measures for the community; however, I failed to explain that possibility as it was discussed at the workshop. Thanks for catching that.

    • beachmom H

      The retailers already pay for the bags as a part of the cost of doing business. Why would the city reimburse them? That is basically what that would be if the retailers were given this new form of sales tax. I’m willing to bet it would go to the general fund.

  • SierraTango

    It’s worth noting that the city of South Portland mailed letters to over 400 businesses regarding these proposed changes. Not a single business has come forward in opposition.

  • beachmom H

    This is not about being “green” or anything other than finding a way to implement a city sales tax because the councilors on the City Council would rather take more money out of our pockets than control their spending or OUR money.
    If it were about being a “green” city that would indicate a strong desire on their parts to control how we live our individual lives. Not a good thing either.

    • SierraTango

      Refresh my memory, when are you taking out papers to run for council? The deadline is September 8. Let me know; I’ll sign your petition!