2015-08-21 / Front Page

South Portland moves toward bag fees, Styrofoam ban

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — The environmental movement in South Portland continues to grow, with the city council now considering a ban on polystyrene containers and a fee for plastic bags, similar to rules that went into effect across the river in Portland in April.

The council took up both items at its Aug.10 workshop, using ordinances passed in Portland last year as a model. However, due to the absence of three councilors — Brad Fox, Melissa Linscottt, and Patti Smith — from Monday’s meeting, the questions are likely to be revisited in a future workshop before proceeding to a first reading as an ordinance proposal.

Even so, the councilors, including at least two of those absent from Monday’s meeting, have expressed wide support for the initiatives.

“I support this entirely,” said Councilor Claude Morgan. “This is a perfect fit for our community, this is the way we are going. So, I’d be full-steam throttle forward.”

“I have not heard a lot of growling, whining, complaining, or that kind of thing,” said Councilor Maxine Beecher. “I personally feel, like it or not, it’s time. I’m absolutely in favor of moving this forward.”

According to City Manager Jim Gailey, South Portland has been itching to follow Portland’s lead for some time. There was an effort to enact a regional rule under the auspices of the Greater Portland Council of Governments. However, that effort faltered following a joint meeting of several municipalities this past June, he said.

“We wanted consistency across the region,” he said. “We didn’t want to create yet another single-use bag ordinance that was in conflict with our neighbors. But everyone was kind of at a different point and a lot of grassroots initiatives were taking place in many of those communities. It became evident very fast that us waiting any further on developing our ordinance was not the best scenario for South Portland.”

“I think Portland is the direction the city council should be going,” Gailey said.

The polystyrene provision would involve an outright ban on the product in all food and beverage sales in the city, with the exception of raw seafood. Gailey said that was presumably for the insulation benefits of polystyrene, for worldwide shipment from the area of items such as fresh lobster. However, Councilor Tom Blake lobbied for adding raw seafood to the banned packaging list.

“There’s got to be an alternative. I don’t understand why we are exempting one industry,” he said.

Blake also suggested extending the ban to retail items, considering the amount of polystyrene used to pack electronics and other products.

“There is lot more packaging in that than in a coffee cup. When we start talking about all polystyrene packaging, that’s huge,” he said. “The important thing is getting people to comply voluntarily.”

Councilors discussed a slow phase-in that could be as long as a year before the ban takes complete effect.

“I think we need to give them some time to work this into their budgets,” Mayor Linda Cohen said, referring to local businesses affected by the proposal.

However, Andrew Heckman of Union, speaking on behalf of cup maker Dart Container Corporation, urged the council not to get carried away with dreams of going green.

“It takes more energy, more greenhouse gas, to actually produce that (alternative plastic) cup,” he said. “Plus, polystyrene is 100 percent recyclable. It’s something we want back. We want to turn into other products.”

That won a retort from Morgan, who said, “If you’re looking for polystyrene to take back with you to Union, you need look no further than the wetlands along our Greenbelt (Trail). Those products have been there for years.”

Meanwhile, Gailey, who is chairman of the board at regional recycling firm ecomaine, said polystyrene is not sought after in volumes that would make it worth the hassle.

“It’s a very difficult material.” He said. “It is recyclable to some extent, but the vendors out there are just not lining up at the door to take it.”

Meanwhile, the plastic bag initiative also would mirror Portland’s. As currently conceived, it would require any store that does more than 2 percent of its gross business in food sales to charge customers a minimum of 5 cents for each so-called “singleuse, carry-out” bag.

A notice of the potential ordinance update has already been sent to more than 400 businesses in the city, Gailey said. However, the rule would not apply to individual stores in the Maine Mall, only to the mall as a whole.

“I think South Portland residents are expecting this to happen, want this to happen, and I don’t think we have to wait for other towns to do the same thing,” said Orchard Street resident Patricia Whyte. “Because we are so close to Portland, this is expected. It’s the right way to go.”

But Russ Lunt of Brigham Street feared a repeat of the recent defection of Martin’s Point Health Care from the city.

“I just hope (businesses) don’t lose money and jump ship to Scarborough,” he said.

“I cannot believe that any food service company would leave South Portland because of this ordinance,” Whyte said.

Still, despite wide council support, neither proposal is necessarily a slam dunk in its current form. Councilor Tom Blake, for example, stumped hard to make the bag ban apply only to plastic, not paper.

“Within a few years (paper bags) return to the earth. They are a renewable resource,” he said.

“That would deviate from Portland,” Morgan replied. “On this item, I really think we want a unified voice.”

“I don’t want anyone to think we’re doing this because Portland’s did it, that we feel like we have to do everything Portland does,” Cohen said. “We are doing it for that reason. We’re doing it because it’s the right time to do it, and probably past time to do it.”

Return to top