Topsham voters may enact fee on single-use bags

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TOPSHAM — A 5-cent fee on single-use shopping bags at some businesses may go to town voters in November.

A related ban on polystyrene foam containers, meanwhile, will need a citizen petition to make it to the polls.

The Bring Your Own Bag Midcoast group has previously raised both issues in Brunswick and Topsham. It advocates a nickel fee on “single-use, carry-out plastic and paper bags at all retail stores,” such as grocery and convenience stores, and pharmacies, where food comprises more than 2 percent of their gross sales, and banning foam containers provided for beverages or food at restaurants, stores or other shops.

The group says both materials frequently end up as litter, the bags are recycled at a low rate in Maine, while foam containers aren’t recycled at all, and there are alternatives at competitive costs.

An estimated 46,000 pieces of primarily plastic litter is floating on each square mile of ocean, and the deaths of more than 100,000 sea turtles and other marine creatures each year are caused by plastic bags when the animals mistake them for food, according to the group.

Meanwhile, the small pieces into which polystyrene foam breaks do not decompose or biodegrade. The material contributes to litter and can also be consumed by marine life, killing or harming those creatures. It sometimes ends up in seafood, according to BYOB.

The Board of Selectmen held a few workshops with BYOB in recent months, and discussed the matter at an official meeting for the first time July 7, Town Manager Rich Roedner said.

“Their goal is for people to bring their own bags with them, whatever form they take,” he said, noting that BYOB is raising funds to distribute about 5,000 bags in the Brunswick-Topsham area, particularly for those who would find it a financial concern to purchase paper or plastic bags regularly.

The board voted 4-1 to have staff modify a draft ordinance presented to the panel, and bring it back to the board for a public hearing, “with a thought of putting it on the November ballot,” Roedner said.

Selectman David Douglass, who voted in opposition, said the issue is one that should be settled by the state Legislature, as opposed to being decided in each municipality, with different rules, Roedner said.

Portland, South Portland, Falmouth, Freeport, York and Kennebunk already regulate single-use bags. Portland, South Portland and Freeport have banned foam food containers, and ban will take effect in October in Brunswick.

The board as a whole found the foam issue to be significantly more complicated than plastic bags – for example, the question of whether businesses banned from using the material would also be barred from selling it – and something that should be considered in Augusta, the manager said.

The panel voted 5-0 to take the foam ban no further, but the BYOB group could petition for the question to be placed on November’s ballot, Roedner noted.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.