2016-12-01 / News

Public hearing set for Saco plastic bag ban

Officials model ordinance after Freeport guidelines
By Anthony Aloisio
Staff Writer

SACO – An ordinance to ban single-use plastic bags from some Saco food stores is based closely on a similar ordinance that was considered by the town of Freeport earlier this year. When the ordinance made its way through Freeport, it received much input from official bodies on the questions of environmental and economic impact. Saco has yet to take that kind of input on its proposed ordinance.

The first reading of the revised version of Saco’s ordinance was approved by the city council at the Nov. 21 council meeting. The vote means that the matter will go to public hearing at the next council meeting Monday, Dec. 5.

The ordinance first appeared as a discussion item at the council’s Nov. 17 meeting. The version approved on Nov. 21 shares the same basic effect as the original, which is to prohibit the distribution of single-use plastic bags and to require a 5 cent fee to be paid to the store for each single-use paper bag, applicable to food stores.

When this matter made its way through Freeport, it was controversial.

“The working draft that the ordinance committee had was still unresolved on whether it would be a fee on paper, a fee on plastic, a ban on paper, a ban on plastic, or one combination of those,” said Peter Joseph, town manager of Freeport, in an interview with the Courier. “They didn’t have a final proposal because that debate was still going on. The debate was, which one is best for the environment, and for the economy and there was still no clear answer on it.”

In considering the ordinance, Freeport asked the town’s Recycling and Solid Waste Committee and the Freeport Economic Development Corporation to submit reports on the environmental impact and economic impact, respectively, of the potential ordinances.

The 14-page environmental report summarized that “the reduction or elimination of plastic bags and plastics in general within 30 miles of the coast is recognized as an effective solution to mitigate the impacts of plastics entering the marine environment.”

According to the environmental report, plastic litter harms marine environments for two main reasons. The first is that animals ingest or become entangled in plastic litter, which can weaken or kill them. The second, less obvious harm is that plastic items like singleuse bags break down mechanically into “microplastics.”

“These mircoplastics (sic) become suspended in the water column and attract toxic contaminants, which adhere to them,” read the environmental report. “These toxin-containing mircoplastics (sic) are then eaten by marine organisms and become a contaminant moving up through the food chain: zooplankton, birds, fish, humans, bioaccumulating as they go.”

The environmental report said that microplastics harm is local to Maine.

“Since 2012, studies by the Marine Environment Research Institute, in conjunction with the University of New England, have found that 99 percent of Maine sea water samples contain microplastics, ranging from 14 to 80 pieces per liter,” according to the environmental report.

The environmental report also noted that collection in Maine of 33,144 coastal trash items “showed that grocery bags and other plastic bags were in the top 10 items.”

The report also details the greenhouse gas emissions of the production of both paper and plastic single-use bags. According to the report, paper bag production was associated with higher greenhouse gas emissions than plastic bags, through multiple measures, often by about twice as much.

On paper bags, the environmental impact report summarizes that “paper bags, especially ones made with 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper, provide a more environmentally sustainable alternative to plastic.”

Separately, the 17-page economic impact report prepared by Freeport Economic Development Corporation explored the impacts on both Freeport residents and Freeport businesses.

The study summarized that the costs to residents over the second full year was expected to be between $64,000 and $13,400.

“These costs are not borne equally across the community,” according to the report. “They are borne entirely by consumers who continue to use single-use bags in spite of the fee.”

“If paper bags are provided as a free alternative bag option, studies show that consumers will switch to paper, and not to re-usable bags,” the economic report continued. “Paper, however, is a more expensive option for stores.”

The report noted that Freeport residents would likely see an extra expense as passed on to the consumer by the stores.

“(If plastic bags are banned) the per capita share for Freeport residents of the increase is between $4.33 and $15.76 per resident per year,” the economic report read, “and per Freeport household share is between $12.23 and $44.48 per year.”

However, the report qualified that assertion by saying that it was based on the likely faulty assumption that no residents would begin using re-usable bags who had not used them prior; the report speculated that that assumption “may prove faulty if the use of reusable bags increases dramatically town-wide following the implementation of a ban.”

Regarding businesses, the economic impact report indicated that the effects came with a warning.

“This study does not support the conclusion that a fee on both paper and plastic bags directly imposes costs on businesses,” the report read. “The risk of losing business to surrounding towns is significant, however. Using survey data collected in Dallas, Texas and Washington, D.C., this study estimates that local business could lose up to 10 percent of their annual sales.”

Irene Lim owns Fernleaf Bakery and Coffee House on Free Street in Saco. Since the bakery is not a restaurant and does not sell food incidentally, it’s not clear whether businesses like hers would fall under the ordinance’s restrictions. In the case that it does, Lim said, she would be opposed to the ban on plastic bags.

“I’d be more in favor of (the Portland model) than totally banning the use of plastic,” Lim said. “That’s not convenient whatsoever when there’s a big order.”

The Portland ordinance is similar, but it allows plastic bags for a 5 cent fee instead of banning them.

“If it’s raining, that’s the other time people like plastic bags,” Lim said.

“For a convenience place, it’s gonna be kinda awkward,” Lim continued. “You don’t go to a convenience and bring your own bag, it’s not like a grocery where you plan to make a big trip.”

Still, Lim said she understood the effort behind the proposed ordinance.

“It’s one of those things where we want to go in the right direction,” Lim said.

The revision approved on Nov. 21 differed from the original form of the ordinance in significant respects. First, at the consensus of councilors on Nov. 17, the section titled “Record Keeping and Inspection” was deleted. That section would have required stores to keep records of sales of paper bags and to make those records available to the city.

“The intent of that paragraph is to see if it’s effective,” Joseph said.

Joseph said it gives Freeport officials the right to retrieve records to be used as data to analyze how the ordinance works out, or alternatively if an outside party wanted to do, for example, an academic study on the effect of this type of ordinance.

“I don’t think it’s important at all to the functioning,” Joseph said about the records provision. “So, if you just want to get it done, and you don’t care to revisit it or analyze it in the future, you don’t need that.”

The second revision of the Freeport model statute removed language from the definition of “store” which explicitly included drug stores, pharmacies, supermarkets, grocery stores, convenience food stores and food marts. The basic definition of food store remains “a full-line, self service retail market located in a permanent building.” However, since none of the mentioned store types were added to the ordinance’s exemption language, it’s unclear whether the deletion was intended to change whether the ordinance applies to them.

“I do think that we should look at making the definition clearer,” Cote wrote in an email.

Cote said he does not think the definition includes bakeries. Restaurants are still explicitly exempted, along with stores for which food sale is less than 2 percent of sales.

Contact Staff Writer Anthony Aloisio at news@inthecourier.com.

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