South Portland council takes 1st step toward bag fee, foam packaging ban

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SOUTH PORTLAND — City councilors gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a 5-cent fee on single-use shopping bags and a ban on the use of polystyrene food containers.

The fee would apply to paper and plastic bags at any retail store that primarily sells food products. Only retailers whose sales of food or drink items are less than 2 percent of gross sales would be excluded.

The ban on containers made of plastic foam would only exclude establishments with incidental gross food sales of less than 2 percent.

The effort to curb the use of these materials comes on the coattails of Portland’s decision to implement virtually the same rules, which went into effect in April.

In early August, councilors held a workshop on the issue and agreed that following in Portland’s footsteps would be a good first step for the city.

It may be that South Portland eventually veers from Portland’s path and limits the use of these materials even further, to the point of “total elimination,” City Manager Jim Gailey said last week.

A possible route could be to have the single-use tax for one year and then an outright ban on plastic bags in year two, he said.

“As much as Portland did both paper and plastic, the real concern is the plastic (and) the end result of plastic in the environment,” Gailey said.

The City Council’s first reading of both proposed ordinances received unanimous support at the Sept. 9 meeting. They will be up for final approval on Sept. 21. If approved, both would go into effect in six months, on March 1, 2016.

Councilor Tom Blake unsuccessfully proposed an amendment to the single-use bag ordinance, which would have eliminated paper bags from the single-use category.

Paper bags are recyclable and can be reliably reused, Blake said. Moreover, paper bags can be viewed as a local product, made from Maine trees, he said.

“This is a reusable bag that is a Maine product that is made by a Maine employer. We have an opportunity to use a renewable resource,” he said.

But Councilor Patti Smith said the point is to reduce, in addition to reuse and recycle.

“If you really believe in the three R’s, some communities are actually adding a fourth R called responsibility: taking responsibility for your actions around environmental steps,” Smith said.

She said she supports a single-use bag fee for both paper and plastic because it’s a “step to take to address that first R: Reduce.”

Adding a nickel fee for single-use bags and banning polystyrene are small, but meaningful steps, but “small matters do make a difference,” Smith said. “It’s up to everyone to think about what they do.”

For the sake of consistency, Councilor Claude Morgan said, it’s necessary to implement an ordinance similar to Portland’s.

“In this narrow ordinance that we’re working on tonight, we are in fact jumping in concert with a number of communities,” he said.

The hope, Morgan added, is that other communities in the region will follow.

Fewer than half a dozen citizens offered comments. Two of them urged councilors not to take action.

Jim Hoy said he doesn’t believe plastic bags are that big a problem, and frequent council critic Albert DiMillo called the councilors “a bunch of environmental hypocrites.”

“You worry about environment. (But) why did we build a monstrous high school? Because you don’t think about the big picture, you think about little bags. You worry about the pennies and don’t look at the big dollars,” DiMillo said.

It isn’t about turning a profit, Smith said. Rather, it’s about providing an incentive for people to make small changes in their behavior that will hopefully lead to less refuse in the environment.

The 5-cent fee for bags would remain with retailers to use at their discretion, a detail that disappointed Blake.

He said he would rather see the fee used for “in-house programs, for education. I would like to see that happen, so that businesses look at it as an opportunity to improve themselves,” he said.

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

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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.