ELLSWORTH — Community members weighed in on Thursday morning at the first of several public forums to discuss a possible ban on single-use plastic bags in Ellsworth.
Fifteen other communities in Maine have passed ordinances either banning or limiting single-use plastic bags, including Blue Hill and Belfast. Waterville is set to vote on a citizen referendum on Nov. 6.
The draft ordinance for Ellsworth would apply to all retailers (food and merchandise alike) and ban single-use carryout plastic bags.
Paper bags would be allowed under the proposed ordinance, with retailers able to decide whether to charge a fee for paper bags (which are more expensive). Reused plastic bags would be allowed, as would thin film plastic bags without handles, such as those used to carry produce and baked goods.
“This is the first of many” public meetings about the proposed ordinance, said Julia Ventresco, a member of the Ellsworth Green Plan, who was one of three panelists on Thursday morning. The event was sponsored by the Ellsworth Area Chamber of Commerce.
The second meeting is slated for early December and will likely be held during the evening (several noted that an early-morning start time was difficult for many business owners to participate in).
The Ellsworth City Council has not yet taken up the proposal. If approved, there would be an adjustment period before the ordinance takes effect to allow retailers to use up the stock they have.
Curtis Picard, president and CEO of the Retail Association of Maine, laid out some of the issues the organization’s members have brought forward in other communities.
Picard stressed continuity between municipalities, saying it was better for towns and cities to take ordinances “word for word” from other communities rather than start from scratch.
“What we’ve seen,” Picard said, “is a lot of different variations in these ordinances.” He gave the example of Brunswick, Topsham and Freeport — nearby towns with very different regulations.
“Retailers with multiple locations throughout the state are having trouble complying,” Picard said.
Tom Peaco, executive director of the Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce, agreed.
“We’ve really been encouraging communities to not operate in a vacuum, to have some consistency,” he said.
Ellsworth’s proposal was taken “almost exactly” from that enacted by Brunswick in 2017, Ventresco said.
It is also similar to Blue Hill’s ordinance, which was passed this spring. Several towns on Mount Desert Island are working together on a plastic bag ordinance to ensure continuity.
Picard also spoke about difficulties at the state level. Legislation is introduced nearly every year to ban the bags, Picard said, but has yet to pass because of various complications.
Taxes are one problem — under state law, municipalities are not allowed to collect bag fees, which are kept by retailers. If a state law were to pass, the state would almost certainly want to keep the money, Picard said.
“That would be one of the pressure points that would have a lot of discussion.”
There’s also the problem of which law would reign supreme. The point of passing a law at the state level would be to avoid a patchwork of regulations statewide.
“But would the law supersede that of municipalities?” Picard asked.
California, which passed a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags in 2016, exempted some municipalities with bans already in place that met “certain preemption requirements.”
Rwanda and Kenya have both banned the bags country-wide, with violators facing fines in the tens of thousands of dollars and years in jail.
Picard said he represents businesses on both sides of the issue. Many recognize the problem of plastic bags, which degrade into microplastics and contribute to vast patches of garbage in the middle of the sea.
But, Picard said, “For a municipality to come in and say ‘you need to do it this way,’ that is a concern to some business owners.
“There are real competitive pressures out there and retailers have to take those costs into consideration.”
Asked whether there was data to indicate if plastic bag pollution is a problem in Ellsworth, Picard said numbers are hard to come by.
Larger retailers don’t track the number of bags leaving their facility and are often only able to provide the number of tons they recycle regionally.
“Nobody out there has specific numbers of plastic bags,” Picard said.
Michele Gagnon, Ellsworth city planner, was in the audience and said that during yearly cleanups at Card Brook, the “prevailing things we pick up are plastic bags and Styrofoam cups. Every year it’s the same thing.”
Many large retailers already recycle their bags in one form or another, Picard said.
Hannaford has a robust recycling program for bags collected at its facilities. Marden’s gets plastic bags from other stores “that are going to be thrown out anyway,” Picard said.
Several city councilors were present during the meeting. City Manager David Cole urged residents and business owners to come forward with ideas and concerns.
“It’s important the council hear from all segments of the community,” Cole said.
Several residents spoke of the need to present the gateway to Acadia National Park as an environmentally forward and friendly community.
“It’s important, especially for tourists who come to Maine, that we represent part of the new-world order,” said Leslie Harlow. “That’s being responsible about a lot of things, including trash.”
Microplastics — tiny plastic particles resulting from the degradation of bags, bottles, clothing and fishing nets — have been increasingly recognized as a worldwide problem in recent years.
A State University of New York study found the microscopic pellets in 90 percent of bottled water as well as high levels in the tap. They have been found in sea salt and in the guts of fish and mussels.
Microplastics make up most of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a massive floating collection of trash between Hawaii and California.
The proposed ban in Ellsworth isn’t going to solve all of the world’s pollution problems, Ventresco said.
“It’s not a panacea. It’s not going to solve all of our plastic problems. But it’s a step in the right direction.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the number of municipalities that have passed ordinances regulating single-use plastic bags.