By Tom Porter
MPBN news story
AUGUSTA, Maine – Maine lawmakers are considering several bills that would discourage the use of plastic bags by retailers, including one that would impose a fee for their use. Meanwhile, food retailers in Portland are gearing up for an ordinance also designed to limit the use of plastic bags.
On April 15, Maine’s biggest city will become the first in the state – and one of only a few in New England – to charge a fee for plastic shopping bags.
The city is also introducing a ban on many types of Styrofoam food packaging. Advocates say the new policies will greatly reduce the amount of trash that ends up in the ocean and elsewhere. But for others, the ordinance is an unwelcome financial burden.
The new ordinance specifically targets the city’s biggest grocery retailers, like Hannaford Brothers, which has two stores in Portland, including a 77,000-square-foot property on Forest Avenue.
Spokesman Eric Blom says the company did not take a position on the ordinances limiting plastic bags and Styrofoam packaging when they were approved back in June. But now that they’re about to take effect, Blom says they’re ready to invest in the idea.
“There definitely are, especially, upfront costs with this,” Blom says. He wouldn’t give a figure, but says Hannaford is spending money retraining employees and re-working some of its software. The company is also trying to help prepare consumers for the change. “We’re anticipating giving away about 100,000 (reusable) bags between our two Portland stores during our giveaway period.”
Beginning April 15, Hannaford and other Portland food retailers will be required to charge a 5-cent fee – money which they can keep – for each disposable plastic or paper bag used. The idea is to encourage more consumers to buy reusable bags and reduce the amount of plastic waste going into the environment.
Hannaford will be charging $1.25 per reusable bag, but will be giving them away for free from March 29 until the ordinance takes effect.
“We hope that they’ll have those available to use when the fee goes into place on April 15,” Blom says.
“I think it’s a great idea that they’re using reusable bags,” says shopper Pat Dern. Dern says she’s concerned about the effects disposable plastic bags have on the environment. Her shopping cart contains four reusable bags full of groceries. “I started using them last year. I love them.”
Gisela Twiss is pushing a cart full of plastic bags. She says she plans to keep using disposable bags even after the 5-cent fee is introduced. “I don’t care for the reusable bags because they have a lot bacteria,” she says.
Twiss says she’s concerned about the potential for the buildup of harmful bacteria, such as e-coli, in bags which are repeatedly used to carry food. Studies show the bags can foster bacteria growth, but experts say they are unlikely to pose much of a health risk, especially if shoppers regularly wash them; they also show that many of the e-coli are harmless.
But customers like Twiss aren’t ready to change their habits. “I prefer the plastic and if they charge, then I’ll continue paying for the plastic,” Twiss says.
Tom Porter: “It’s going to put a little extra on your shopping bill, isn’t it?”
Gisela Twiss: “I figure it’ll probably be a couple of bucks every time.”
“It’s imposing another tax on the citizens of Portland,” says Shelley Doak, the executive director of the Maine Grocers and Food Producers’ Association, which opposes the ordinance. Doak had hoped the city would, instead, concentrate on recycling, and on enforcing existing litter laws. “And there was no data, essentially, conducted on the economic impacts to the businesses, or onto their customers.”
Environmentalists say there is ample evidence to justify the ban. “Single use disposable bags are one of the most commonly used and quickly discarded items in our society,” says Sarah Lakeman, of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “Plastic bags tend to easily find their way into the environment, and are often seen lining fences and stuck in trees and clogging up storm drains, or wind up in the ocean’s plastic soup.”
Lakeman says more than 150 communities across the nation have successfully eliminated tens of millions of bags by adopting such policies. Apart from the state-level efforts, several other Maine communities are also considering following Portland’s lead.