by David Harry
The Forecaster news story
PORTLAND — Proposals to ban polystyrene foam containers and cups, and to place a fee on paper and plastic shopping bags, will return to the full City Council for first readings on Monday, June 2.
The amendments to Chapter 12 of the city code were last considered in September 2013, but were returned to the Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee for more discussion.
Councilor Ed Suslovic, chairman of the Green Packaging Working Group, which initially suggested the ordinance changes, said Friday he is pleased the full council discussion will be renewed.
“This is going work out just fine,” said Suslovic, who was not a committee member, but attended the meetings that led to endorsements of the proposals on April 16 and May 21.
The committee, with Councilor David Marshall as chairman, first endorsed the foam ban in April, and tabled the bag fee question for more study. On May 21, it forwarded a plan to charge customers and supermarkets and convenience stores five cents per bag. Councilor Cheryl Leeman opposed both ordinance amendments.
The bag fee was approved by the committee without public comment. But Shelly Doak, executive director of the Maine Grocers & Food Producers Association, Friday said she will speak to the full council.
“It is a tax on a very targeted business in Portland,” Doak said.
Proponents have cited a 2009 study by nonprofit Keep America Beautiful that claimed 46 percent of litter is from packaging materials. They have also cited a 2006 California Coastal Commission report claiming 43 percent of trash found at catch basin drainage areas on the Los Angeles River was comprised of plastic bags and film materials (with another 17 percent comprised of polystyrene foam).
The committee initially sought a fee of 10 cents per bag, and councilors proposed the city keep four cents of every dime to fund public education efforts to reduce bag use.
The latest version reduces the fee to five cents, and allows merchants to keep all of it.
“I think a nickel is fine,” Suslovic said.
The ordinance banning food vendors from using polystyrene packages and cups could take effect July 1, 2015. It has not been determined when the bag fees could be enacted.
Raw seafood products would be exempt from the packaging limits, and the ban would be lifted if a recycling program decides to accept polystyrene.
Ecomaine, which handles the city’s solid waste and recycled materials, does not accept the foam. Foam collected as solid waste is incinerated, not buried as landfill.
A minority report written by packaging group members said the foam presents the most sanitary and energy-efficient way to serve and store food. The report also casts doubt on whether a ban would reduce litter, and suggested more study is needed on the economic effects of a ban.
“I kept challenging the business community (to) ‘bring me one story of a business that has been harmed.’ They never did,” Suslovic said.
Both the bag fee and foam ban are endorsed by the Sierra Club of Maine, Natural Resources Council of Maine and Conservation Law Foundation as environmentally friendly ways to reduce litter and protect marine life.
Joining the Maine Associated Grocers in opposition are the Maine Restaurant Association, Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, and business owners including Andy Charles of Haven’s Candies on Forest Avenue.
Doak said the bag fee presents practical challenges that also have tax implications for business owners.
“This five cents per bag is subject to sales tax, so it is a tax on a tax,” Doak said.
Retailers will have to track how many bags are sold and report sales and income tax to the state, but Doak said the bags would not likely be scanned at cash registers.
Leeman has also said the fees will be another way the city is adding to the cost of living without considering the cumulative effect of its actions. But Suslovic said paying the fees is not inevitable.
“It is eminently avoidable,” he said. “Every time I pay a nickel it will be a reminder to grab one of the cloth bags I’ve accumulated. And is a nickel really going to break someone?”