by Sarah Lakeman, NRCM Sustainable Maine Policy Advocate
Good evening Mayor Brennan and members of the Council. My name is Sarah Lakeman, I am the Sustainable Maine Policy Advocate for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. I am speaking as a Portland resident and on behalf of NRCM’s more than 16,000 members and supporters, of which more than 1,100 live in Portland. I appreciate the opportunity to speak in support of both of the ordinances before you today.
NRCM is confident that Portland will reap significant benefits by adopting ordinances that discourage the use of polystyrene foam containers and curb the proliferation of single-use disposable bags. Policies like these have proven to be effective in reducing litter in over 120 cities across the nation, and we believe the time is right for Portland to join these efforts to move away from materials that are used for just a few minutes before they become litter or waste.
NRCM supports the ban on polystyrene foam because these disposable containers are among Portland’s most prevalent form of litter and marine debris; they cannot be recycled locally; and affordable, recyclable, and less harmful alternatives to these containers are readily available. When foam containers end up in the environment they never fully break down and biodegrade and can be lethal when ingested by fish and wildlife. As a coastal city, this is an extremely important point to consider.
As for the bag ordinance, we support the amended language which we believe will provide an effective system for reducing the proliferation of single-use disposable bags and encouraging the use of reusable bags.
The data is very clear regarding the success of reusable bag incentive ordinances such as the one before you this evening. Cities that institute fees on single-use disposable bags are succeeding in drastically reducing the use of these unnecessary bags that end up clogging storm drains, jamming recycling equipment, getting entangled in trees, and floating out to sea. Across the nation, hundreds of millions of plastic and paper bags are no longer entering the environment or the waste stream as a result of ordinances that create an incentive for consumers to bring their reusable bags to the store with them.
Letting stores retain the fee lessens the administrative burden on businesses as they rollout the new reusable bag incentive program in their stores. We look forward to working with the City, retail stores, and other non-profits to broadly publicize the benefits of using reusable bags as this ordinance is implemented, with the goal of driving disposable bag use, and the fees collected, down to the lowest possible level.
This incentive based system is often mislabeled as a tax on consumers, but it is actually an easily avoidable fee. If people do not wish to pay 5 cents for a bag, they can either bring their own bag or skip the bag all together. In fact, the entire purpose of this ordinance is to reduce litter and waste by encouraging people to avoid the purchase of single-use disposable bags.
Some people have said that we should pursue a voluntary approach instead of this incentive program, but we’ve tried that in Maine and it hasn’t worked. In 2009, NRCM participated with the Maine Grocers Association and others to launch the “Got your bags, Maine?” campaign, which was intended to encourage people to remember their reusable bags. But that effort has largely failed. An NRCM volunteer recently visited 43 stores that would be included in the bag ordinance here in Portland and found that only three promoted the use of reusable bags, and not a single one featured the Got your Bags campaign message. Clearly, we can do much better at encouraging reusable bags, and we will if the City Council adopts an incentive-based ordinance like so many communities across the nation have already done.
The Natural Resources Council of Maine strongly believes that these ordinances are positive steps in the direction of a more sustainable community. We urge Portland to be on the leading edge of this change in Maine, and not simply sit on the sidelines and watch it happen elsewhere. Thank you for the opportunity to comment, and I would be glad to answer any questions you may have.