The new plan would also allow retailers to keep the nickel they charge for each disposable plastic or paper bag.
By Kevin Miller, Staff Writer
Portland Press Herald news story
Members of Portland’s Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee voted 3-1 to endorse an anti-litter proposal that would require retailers to collect 5 cents for every single-use plastic or paper bag that consumers use. The fee would apply at stores where food – including milk, bread, soda and snacks – constitutes at least 2 percent of gross sales but would not apply to dry cleaners, restaurants and farmers markets.
“I do believe that as a result we will see fewer plastic bags in our trees, in our public spaces, in our catch basins and in our harbor,” Councilor Kevin Donoghue said before the final vote. Moments earlier, committee members had voted to lower the fee from 10 cents to 5 cents.
Dozens of cities and counties across the country have adopted fees or outright bans on plastic bags as a way to encourage shoppers to bring their own reusable bags and to reduce litter, particularly of plastic bags that can clog storm drains and kill marine wildlife.
Portland’s bag fee proposal will be paired with another anti-litter effort passed by the same committee last month that would ban plastic foam or polystyrene food and beverage containers in the city. The City Council is expected to take up both proposals next month.
In an effort to make the so-called “bag tax” more palatable to retailers, the proposal would allow stores to keep all revenues from the fees. But that strategy as well as the switch to a 5-cent fee did not appear to sway some business groups that have opposed the bag tax, as well as the proposed plastic foam ban, from the beginning.
“We have maintained all along that it is a tax on consumers, and whether it is 10 cents or 5 cents it is still a tax at the end of the day,” Shelley Doak, executive director of the Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association, said after the meeting.
If enacted, Portland would become the first municipality in Maine to impose a fee on disposable bags. There are ample precedents nationally, however.
At least 120 municipalities or counties around the country have passed ordinances either imposing fees or banning disposable bags, according to a list compiled by the Surfrider Foundation, a California-based nonprofit active on ocean and beach protection issues nationwide.
Disposable plastic bags have been banned throughout Hawaii since May 2012. Aspen, Colorado, bans disposable plastic bags and charges 20 cents for paper bags. Washington, D.C., requires retailers to collect 5 cents on both paper and plastic bags, with the revenues earmarked to clean up the polluted Anacostia River that bisects the city.
The proposal endorsed by the Portland committee on Wednesday night was modeled after an ordinance in San Jose, California. But rather than collecting 10 cents per bag, Councilor Jon Hinck recommended a 5-cent fee to reduce the impact on consumers.
“I think what this does for our city, first and foremost, is it reduces litter and it reduces the costs that eventually fall on the taxpayers for cleanup of the bags,” Hinck said.
A coalition of environmental groups – including Friends of Casco Bay, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Maine chapter of the Sierra Club – have been vocal advocates for a bag tax in Portland.
But the proposal will continue to face opposition.
Councilor Cheryl Leeman, who voted against the proposal, said she agrees there is a little problem but regards the 5-cent fee as the latest cost increase handed down by the council. Earlier this week, the council approved a $221 million budget that, when combined with the school budget, will increase the city’s property tax rate by 3 percent.
“It doesn’t resolve the problem because the problem is related to two major factors: humans and weather,” Leeman said.
Chris O’Neil, who represents the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, indicated that the chamber continues to oppose the bag fee although he said allowing retailers to keep the revenue likely lessens some concern. The proposed fee and other recent proposals – including calls for increasing the minimum wage in the city – raise worries that Portland is becoming an “outlier” among communities, he said.
“The potential cumulative effect of policies that range from maverick to radical is cause for concern in the business community,” O’Neil said.