The Sustain Mid Maine Coalition is eyeing regulations for city bags, but Mayor Nick Isgro says he’s not in favor of fees and calls it ‘an incredibly controversial issue.’
by Colin Ellis, Staff Writer
Central Maine newspapers news story
WATERVILLE — A group planning to recommend city regulations on single-use shopping bags in Waterville may look to mirror the efforts of Portland, where an ordinance puts a 5-cent fee on plastic and paper bags in stores that sell a certain amount of food items.
The Sustain Mid Maine Coalition, the group leading the effort, met for the second time on the issue in City Hall Tuesday afternoon. During the meeting, those in attendance were in favor of trying to model a Waterville ordinance based off the one Portland enacted in 2015, wherein a fee was placed on paper and plastic bags at stores with greater than 2 percent of sales coming from food.
Stu Silverstein, a member of the coalition’s Rethink, Reduce, Reuse Recycle Team and a member of the city’s Solid Waste Committee, said the Portland ordinance was “the best one” for Waterville, since it has already been written and implemented. He said he did not want to get into another “bruising battle” like the kind that occurred when the city moved to its purple bag system for trash collection, known as the pay-as-you-throw system. Some residents were initially critical of the program, though it ultimately was put into place.
Linda Woods, coordinator of the organization, said the group favors a fee on the bags over an outright ban. Silverstein said he thought a ban would have a negative connotation to it. The group also appeared to be in favor of including paper bags in this regulation, after only discussing plastic bags at their July meeting.
Even as the group works on the proposal, it’s likely to encounter opposition when considered by the City Council. Reached by phone later Tuesday afternoon, Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro said he was not in favor of placing a fee on the bags. He was aware of the work the group was doing, but said they had not yet presented anything to the City Council.
The mayor called it “an incredibly controversial issue,” especially in light of the pay-as-you-throw method for trash disposal, which generated some debate.
“In general I do not support a fee on bags,” Isgro said. “However, I think that this is one of those issues that there will probably be a lot of discussion. I think they have a long way to go to implement a fee on bags.”
Elery Keene, who is on the board of directors for Sustain Mid Maine, said at Tuesday’s meeting that he initially did have some reservations about including paper bags in the regulation, and wondered if it could have an impact on Maine paper companies. Sarah Lakeman, sustainable Maine project director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said Maine companies don’t make paper bags, and Keene pointed out it would be good to educate people about that.
Lakeman said the strongest ordinances encourage using reusable bags, which is why there is a need to regulate both paper and plastic. She said since Portland was the first to enact regulations with fees, that has become the trend in Maine. She said if the issue is litter from the bags, a ban would be better, but if the goal is to encourage a cultural shift, a fee is best. In Portland and other towns the 5-cent fee remains with the retailer, which Lakeman said was easiest in terms of administration. But the fee could theoretically go to the city for cleanup efforts or other causes, she said, but shouldn’t go to the city without a purpose.
“The purpose is not to create a tax or a new fund; it’s to encourage reusable bags,” Lakeman said.
Silverstein said the group was not trying to make the city money. And Toby Rose, store manager at Save-A-Lot on The Concourse, said his store already has a 3-cent fee on single-use bags, which he said has greatly impacted customers getting the bags.
“People won’t want to pay,” he said.
Keene said he was concerned the 5-cent fee might not be enough to make people want to switch to reusable bags.
The group is planning to give a presentation to the City Council at some point, in hopes of getting feedback to continue work on the ordinance. Lakeman said they should also plan to hold public events to educate people on the efforts. She also said the group should change the thickness of the definition on reusable bags in the ordinance.
Portland defined reusable bags as the standard 2.25-millimeter thickness. Lakeman advised them to go for a 4-millimeter thickness, which would prevent retailers from selling thinner bags as reusable. The group seemed to agree with that notion.
The group may also apply for a grant from the Natural Resources Council of Maine in the future, likely to use the money to purchase reusable bags to give away to residents. Lakeman, who reviews the grants, said sometimes towns will use that money for a voter campaign ahead of a referendum vote. However, the committee indicated they would rather have the ordinance go to the City Council for adoption.
Lakeman acknowledged the group they may face pushback from opponents, which has happened in other cities and towns implementing regulations. She advised the group to conduct a survey of area businesses that would be effected by any regulations. She also told the group to talk to the City Councilors to “see what is politically feasible.”
While there isn’t a set timeline, Lakeman did advise the group that these efforts can often take longer than hoped for.
The group will meet again on Thursday, Sept. 14, at 1 p.m. in City Hall.