Topsham voters to decide bag fee, foam container ban

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TOPSHAM — Ordinances that would impose a 5-cent fee on single-use shopping bags and ban the use of polystyrene foam containers go to town voters on Election Day.

The Board of Selectmen last month unanimously placed the two questions on the Nov. 8 ballot after a successful citizen petition drive.

The Bring Your Own Bag Midcoast group has raised awareness of both issues in Topsham and Brunswick. The group advocates a nickel fee on “single-use, carry-out plastic and paper bags at all retail stores” – grocery and convenience stores, and pharmacies where food makes up more than 2 percent of gross sales.

The second ordinance would ban foam containers that are provided for beverages or food at restaurants, stores or other shops.

Both products often end up as litter, the group claims. Bags are recycled at a low rate in Maine, while foam containers are not recycled at all, the group states, adding there are alternatives at competitive costs.

“We are a group of local residents, concerned about the now 5 large garbage patches floating in the oceans,” BYOB states on its website. “These gyres are like a swirling soup of debris, much of it composed of single-use, disposable items like water bottles and plastic bags.”

An average person uses 630 single-use bags and 13 paper bags each year, according to BYOB, noting that while used for just 12 minutes, the typical plastic bag “lasts pretty much forever.”

Town Manager Rich Roedner has said BYOB’s goal is for consumers to bring their own bags when shopping, and that BYOB has been 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.

“Plastic bags, like other plastics, do not biodegrade, they only “photodegrade” in sunlight, breaking slowly into microscopic bits– a process that experts estimate will take thousands of years,” the group notes.

Fish eat small pieces of polystyrene, plastic bits of which are later found in seafood, according to the group. BYOB calls for alternative materials such as paper, aluminum and recyclable plastic, which the group says costs just a few cents more.

Although BYOB wanted town officials to take action on both matters, the Board of Selectmen ultimately opted against doing so. Selectman David Douglass said the issues should be settled statewide by the Legislature, as opposed to being decided individually by municipalities.

John Graham, a candidate for the Board of Selectmen, said last week that although he supports the foam ban, he has heard the cardboard cups replacing the foam containers have a lining that some say is as just as bad for the environment as foam.

A July Live Science article on San Francisco’s foam product ban also raises the question of replacement materials.

“It’s possible that in attempting to do away with polystyrene and eliminate the end-of-life problems that (expanded polystyrene) has, people could replace it with something that’s actually worse, which has higher impacts when you make it,” Eric Beckman, a polymer scientist, was quoted as saying. “In other words, you could make something that degrades beautifully in the environment, but it has so many impacts when you manufacture and transport it that the net effect is actually worse.” 

The Pacific Research Institute notes in its “The Crusade Against Plastic Bags” report that alternatives to plastic bags can raise issues as well.

“Other bags (including cloth) have even worse environmental impact profiles, and pose additional risks of cross-contaminating food and spreading dangerous pathogens among those who share the bags,” the report states. “Increasingly, studies suggest that as with other poorly-thought out environmental intervention; banning plastic grocery bags reduces some harms, while increasing others.

Members of the Brunswick Town Council, which has also taken up the issues, had expressed interest in alternatives to the 5-cent fee on paper and plastic bags, like a ban on a plastic bags altogether, or a town-wide fee that would apply to all retailers, not only grocery stores.

As a result of the Topsham board takng no action, BYOB began circulating petitions to put both questions on the November ballot. The Topsham clerk’s office in August certified 596 signatures for the bag fee and 605 on the Styrofoam ban.

The group had to gather at least 505 signatures – 10 percent of the number of votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election – and submit the petitions by Sept. 26.

Portland, South Portland, Falmouth, Freeport, York and Kennebunk already regulate single-use bags. Portland, South Portland and Freeport have banned foam food containers, and a ban took effect this month in Brunswick.

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

A sign near the Topsham Fair Mall encourages residents to vote in favor of charging a fee for single-use plastic shopping bags and a ban on foam packaging.

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.