ELLSWORTH — Ellsworth residents are taking steps to join at least 19 communities, including Bar Harbor, Blue Hill and Belfast, that have regulated single-use plastic bags.
At a City Council meeting on Feb. 11, members of the Ellsworth Green Action Team (EGAT) will present a draft ordinance that would ban single-use carryout plastic bags at all retailers (food and merchandise alike) in the city.
The draft ordinance, which will likely not be voted on until later in the spring, also includes a ban on biodegradable and compostable bags because, according to the draft, “they do not naturally decompose and require processing in an industrial facility to degrade.”
Many such bags require very high temperatures as well as sunlight to break down, neither of which are abundant in landfills or the ocean, where bags often wind up.
“If you just throw them in your home compost bin” they won’t break down, said Martha Dickinson, a member of EGAT. Dickinson also said the proposal might need to be clarified but that it is not intended to restrict the sale of non-carryout biodegradable or compostable bags such as those sold for dog waste.
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. Dry cleaning bags and plastic sleeves for newspapers would also be allowed under the proposal.
The draft ordinance proposes a written warning for the first violation, a $250 fine for a second strike and a $500 fine for third and subsequent violations.
No vote is scheduled to be taken at the February council meeting. If the ban is eventually approved there would be an adjustment period before the ordinance takes effect to allow retailers to use up the stock they have. Under the proposal, the city manager (or a designee) would be responsible for enforcement.
The ban would come on the heels of cutbacks to what the city accepts for recyclables as the market for the materials has plummeted in recent years.
At a public meeting in October sponsored by the Ellsworth Area Chamber of Commerce, Curtis Picard, president and CEO of the Retail Association of Maine, laid out some of the issues surrounding plastic bag bans that the organization’s members have brought forward in other communities.
A lack of consistency among municipalities has been a problem, said Picard, particularly for businesses with locations in several towns. For that reason, Picard recommended modeling an ordinance after another town instead of starting from scratch. EGAT team members, who worked on the draft with city officials, said they had modeled the draft after one enacted in Brunswick in 2017.
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 the question of whether it would supersede the laws passed in municipalities remains open.
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.”
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, said Picard, many businesses chafe at the idea of municipalities imposing this kind of regulation.
“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.
But there are also compelling reasons to get rid of single use plastic bags, many of which were summed up in a 2016 interview attorney Jennie Romer gave to the New Yorker.
Romer listed the reasons she has led a countrywide crusade to ban the bags, including that single-use plastic bags “require nonrenewable fossil fuels for their manufacture, disperse themselves easily because of their lightness, impede waterways, contribute to flooding, pollute oceans, entangle wildlife, kill sea turtles, degrade to small particles, contaminate water and soil, overwhelm landfills and cost huge amounts of money to clean up and dispose of.”
Nor are giveaway plastic bags really “free,” she noted, because consumers pay for them in the price of their purchases.