2015-09-25 / Front Page

Ban contained

City to keep close eye on bag ban when it begins
By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


At Monday's meeting of the South Portland City Council, Brigham Street resident Russ Lunt applauded the council's decision to outlanw polystyrene containers, and to impose fees designed to discourage use of plastic and paper grocery bags. "It's just awful," he said. "They're everywhere." He then proved his point by spotting some of the long-lasting litter on Tuesday morning, in the shadow of the Casco Bay Bridge near Southport Marina. (Courtesy photo) At Monday's meeting of the South Portland City Council, Brigham Street resident Russ Lunt applauded the council's decision to outlanw polystyrene containers, and to impose fees designed to discourage use of plastic and paper grocery bags. "It's just awful," he said. "They're everywhere." He then proved his point by spotting some of the long-lasting litter on Tuesday morning, in the shadow of the Casco Bay Bridge near Southport Marina. (Courtesy photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — The week after the South Portland City Council passed the first reading of new restrictions on plastic grocery bags and polystyrene containers, Mayor Linda Cohen found two of the offending bags on her lawn.

Then, this past week, she found a “giant” Styrofoam cup.

“I’m not making this up,” she said at Monday’s city council meeting. “It’s almost like someone is trying to send me a message.”

“And,” Cohen added, “I don’t think it’s the public.”

On Monday, Sept. 20, the South Portland City Council unanimously voted in amendments to the city’s garbage and refuse ordinance that will ban food and beverage containers made from polystyrene — more commonly known as Styrofoam — starting March 1. Use of the product to package and store raw seafood is exempt from the ban, which otherwise will carry a $250 fine for the first offence committed after an official warning, and $500 for each offense after that.

Also starting March 1, the city will require that stores charge a 5-cent fee for every plastic or paper bag given to customers. The fee must be charged by any business that does more than 2 percent or more of its gross sales in food products.

Applicable stores must post signs advising of the policy and keep records of the purchase and sale of “single use” bags for three years. The fee is meant to aid the environment by discouraging the use of bags that either do not break down in the environment, or else consume large amounts of energy to produce. The fees will be retained by the stores. According to the ordinance amendment, businesses may use the bag fee “for any lawful purpose.”

Still, despite the unanimous vote, the new rules did not pass without debate.

At the first reading of the ordinance update Sept. 9, Councilor Tom Blake tried to strike the fee on paper bags, arguing those are both biodegradable and, for the most part, made in America. That suggestion failed, however, and at the Sept. 21 final reading, Blake attempted to crash the vote by making a motion to send the entire proposal back to council workshop.

It wasn’t that Blake objected to city-sponsored environmental activism. Far from it. Instead, he felt the proposal did not go far enough.

Following the lead of its big sister across the river, South Portland has become the second municipality in Maine to enact restrictions on plastic grocery bags. And it does go beyond the Portland initiative by also going after paper bags. However, in between the first and second readings of South Portland’s initiative, Falmouth got in on the act. But unlike the first two to the table, Falmouth’s proposal goes one step further. Instead of instituting a fee in hopes of discouraging the use of bags that might be easily discarded, Falmouth may outlaw them altogether after a one-year grace period.

That, Blake said, is the model to follow. After all, he noted, when the council decided to go after tar sands, pesticides and Styrofoam, it did not seek to discourage use. It simply banned the products.

“Why are we treating plastic bags so differently?” Blake asked. “This ordinance is not a bad ordinance. It is not terrible, but we can do better. Falmouth, in my opinion, is doing it properly.”

“Our goal is to ban these plastic bags, and that’s not what we’re accomplishing with this,” Councilor Melissa Linscott agreed.

Meanwhile, Councilor Maxine Beecher said if Blake’s attempt to secure a do-over on the ordinance did not succeed, she would move to again strike the nickel fee on paper bags.

“Thirty cents or so per shopping trip. That’s not a lot of money,” she said. “But older people who are on very tight budgets, I got those calls (asking) ‘Paper bags, why can’t we use those?’ Most people do re-use paper bags.”

But Beecher’s plea for paper bags, on the heels of Blake’s motion to institute a full ban on plastic, drew a sharp rebuke from Councilor Claude Morgan.

“What I’m hearing tonight is the same motion that failed last time,” he said. “What is shocking to me is that despite losing a fair fight at the last session, you are willing to scuttle this in order to get your way.”

“That’s certainly not my intent at all,” Blake said. “My intent is to have a discussion so we can ultimately accomplish our goal in banning plastic bags. This motion tonight does not do that.”

“Is this perfect legislation? It is not. But what is?” Morgan replied, adding that the ordinance can be reviewed and tinkered with down the line if it fails to achieve the stated objective.

Still, Blake said the nickel in question should go to the customer as a reward for bringing a reusable bag, not as punishment for accepting a plastic or paper bag.

“The stores will make money off this,” he said. “That’s a tremendous profit for the stores. This should not be a profit center. It should be a reward for the consumer.”

Since the proposal had already gone through a workshop session once, Morgan said the time to amend the measure had passed.

“Let’s not delay this any further,” Morgan said. “Let’s move forward.”

Meanwhile, Cohen said she would rule Beecher’s threatened motion on paper bags out of order, as a mirroring amendment offered by Blake had been rejected at the Aug. 24 workshop.

“I’m still unhappy with this ordinance,” Beecher said. “I know I lost tonight. I can live with that. I just want to be sure that we watch this carefully, we monitor it and that the council hears. I will vote for this but I want a guarantee this is a first step and that we will look at it, and look at it often.”

“I’ll make that promise,” Morgan said

“And I’ll double that promise,” said Councilor Patti Smith.

With that said, only Blake and Linscott voted in favor of reworking the ordinance to change the 5 cent fee into a full ban. Both subsequently joined their peers passing the measure as presented.

That left two audience members to strike opposing views.

“We have got to this point very quickly and I think we have to thank Portland for getting us here,” said Patricia Whyte of Orchard Street. “I think this city council has proven time and again they are thorough and responsible.

“I think all of the citizens of the city of South Portland should be very proud of you all,” she told the council.

But Dr. Katherine Latendresse of High Street struck the opposing note.

“Those reusable bags are not sanitary and they should not be used repeatedly, unless you have a cloth bag you can wash in bleach,” she said. “And I don’t think this 5 cent fee will be beneficial at all. I think it will just be putting a hardship on the people who could use that money the most.”

I’m sure many of us who have extra reusable bags, they’d be willing to share with their neighbors if they are in a hardship situation,” Smith said.

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