By The BDN Editorial Board
Bangor Daily News editorial
On Wednesday, Portland retailers began charging customers 5 cents for plastic and paper shopping bags. A city ban on polystyrene containers also went into effect.
Portland leaders hope the ordinance changes will reduce use of the bags and containers, which clog water systems, choke wildlife and harm the environment in other ways. The ordinance is a move in the right direction. The problem, however, is that the city won’t have a good way to know how effective it is. The retailers keep the entire 5-cent fee, and there are no requirements that they report bag usage to the city.
There are several bills pending in the Legislature to implement a Portland-type program statewide. Meanwhile, lawmakers should take stock of the shortcomings of Portland’s ordinance, which the city should address, before passing a statewide policy to reduce use of plastic bags.
Washington, D.C., offers a good model. In the nation’s capital, the fee for bags is the same — 5 cents — but only a penny goes to the retailer. The remaining 4 cents goes to a river cleanup fund. So, even if the program doesn’t decrease plastic bag use, the city has a substantial fund to clean up its waterways.
And because the city administers the funds, it has a tally of bag use. In the early years of the program, which started in 2010, the number of plastic bags customers accepted dropped substantially. It has risen in recent years, however, which can be partly explained by population growth and the opening of new grocery stores, including two Walmart Supercenters in 2013.
At least 20 nations and 46 local governments outside the United States have banned plastic shopping bags, according to a report by Environment Washington. Bangladesh became the first country in 2002. Another 25 countries and local governments now assess fees on plastic bags. In 2002, the Republic of Ireland established a tax on plastic bags that is roughly equivalent to about 28 U.S. cents per bag today. In the first year, consumers used 90 percent fewer plastic bags. The tax was increased in 2007 because it had become less effective at stopping plastic bag use. Overall, plastic bags have gone from 5 percent to less than 0.25 percent of the Irish waste stream.
In the United States, 50 communities have taken action to reduce plastic bag use through bans and fees, including San Francisco, Brownsville, Texas, and Telluride, Colorado.
After Washington, D.C., initiated its 5-cent fee, the number of bags distributed by food retailers fell from 22.5 million per month to 3.3 million per month, according to the Environment Washington report. Only a third as many plastic bags were found in river cleanup efforts.
But, The Washington Post reported last year, city revenue collections from the bag fee — between $150,000 and $200,000 a month — have stabilized since 2010, suggesting that bag use is no longer declining. Revenue to the city actually increased from 2012 to 2013.
This trend would not have been visible without Washington, D.C.’s tracking system. In Portland, retailers will have a sense of whether they use fewer bags, but the city may not be privy to all of that information. Kudos, by the way, to Hannaford for giving away reusable bags for weeks and now donating money from the sale of these bags to local hunger prevention work.
Two bills before the Legislature this session would set up a program like Washington’s, where the retailer would keep a small portion of a 5-cent fee for plastic bags with the remainder of the money going to a state plastic recycling program. The Environment and Natural Resources Committee, however, sent both bills to the full Legislature with ought-not-to-pass recommendations.
A similar bill has been amended to propose an outright ban of plastic shopping bags by 2020. It would also require retailers that offer plastic bags to customers to have receptacles for recycling those bags in prominent locations.
Portland’s bag fee program bears watching, but it should be improved to include better tracking and funds for recycling or cleanup work before it is replicated elsewhere.