ELLSWORTH — A bed of ice. A slice of lemon. A dozen gleaming oyster shells. And … thousands of fragments of plastic?
No thank you, state Rep. Nicole Grohoski (D-Ellsworth) told the Committee on Environment and Natural Resources at a hearing on April 24.
“I generally don’t eat plastic if I can help it,” said Grohoski, citing a study by the Shaw Institute in Blue Hill that found an average of 177 plastic fragments in oysters harvested in Maine, and a similar number in mussels.
Grohoski was in Augusta to testify on a bill she is co-sponsoring that would eliminate single-use plastic bags statewide. The bill would ban plastic bags less than 4 mils (0.1 millimeter) in thickness and require retailers to impose a 5-cent fee on paper bags.
There are some exceptions — dry cleaning and produce bags, newspaper sleeves, tire bags at auto parts stores — but for the most part, the bill would ban thin plastic bags at the point of sale. They could still be sold on store shelves, such as those for dog waste.
Plastic bags are not the only — or the biggest — problem, Grohoski acknowledged. But they are a “significant concern,” she said.
The Blue Hill study also made this point, noting that plastic bags are not necessarily the most common source of debris in Penobscot or Blue Hill bays. (Microbeads from beauty products and fragments of synthetic clothing were likely the biggest contributors.)
But Americans do use a lot of plastic carryout bags (roughly 4.13 million tons in 2015, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and only around 12 percent of those bags are recycled.
Most recycling plants can’t handle them, and they wind up clogging up machinery (Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. in Orrington ran into this problem last year and was forced to replace a grinder worth $800,000, according to Grohoski’s testimony).
So most wind up in landfills, clogging streams, caught in trees or in the ocean. In early April, a dead sperm whale washed ashore in Indonesia with 25 plastic bags (along with flip-flops, string, drinking cups and bottles) in its gut.
And so in recent years, hundreds of cities and three states — California, Hawaii and New York — have sought to deal with the problem by banning thin film plastic bags.
Yet results on the environmental impacts of such bans have been mixed. One study in California showed that consumers used 40 million pounds fewer carryout bags after the ban but bought 12 million more pounds of thick plastic bags, which are less likely to wind up on the roadside but have a bigger carbon footprint and are harder to dispose of.
“Bag bans shift consumers towards fewer but heavier bags,” authors concluded.
And a study commissioned by the government of Quebec found that thin plastic bags have the least environmental impact among all disposable bags, including paper bags, which are easy to compost or recycle but require a lot of up-front energy to produce.
And considering the carbon footprint and other environmental impacts, reusable bags are far more energy-intensive to produce than single-use plastic. Cotton is particularly bad, requiring between 100 and 2,954 uses for its environmental impact to be equivalent to that of the conventional plastic bag, according to the Quebec study.
And a report by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency found that organic cotton is actually far worse in terms of environmental impact than conventional cotton.
“Reusable bags can be a decent compromise, provided you hold onto them and use them often,” noted a recent New York Times article. “Ultimately, though, what you put inside the bag, particularly your food choices, will most likely matter a lot more for the environment than what type of bag you use.”
Most who testified at the hearing were in favor of the ban, including Adam Reny, part owner of Renys. The company switched to paper in 2017, Reny said.
“When we decided to go to paper, it wasn’t just a business decision, it was a moral decision. We want to keep Maine the way it is.”
Reny said he supports a statewide ban to establish consistency, rather than having a patchwork of municipal ordinances to parse.
“We have 16 locations in Maine and seven have separate ordinances that we have to follow,” Reny said.
“We are trying to comply, we want to comply, but it is really hard with all these separate ordinances.”
Reny said customers seem to have adapted.
“I haven’t heard any pushback from us moving to paper,” he told the committee. “I do think there needs to be some sort of incentive to push the community at large.”
“It’s not everything we would like, it’s not everything the environmental community would like, but we think it’s a reasonable approach,” said Curtis Picard, president of the Retail Association of Maine. “Our retailers at first were wary, but now that they’ve seen them in action, customers have adapted and they’ve been okay with it.”
One of the most important reasons for such a ban, Grohoski told committee members, is education.
Campaigns to get consumers to use fewer bags have not been successful in the past. A ban, she said, would quickly show people “that bags are not necessary.”