Portland Places Fee on Plastic/Paper Bags and Bans Polystyrene Foam

Ben Tettlebaum

San Francisco beat Portland, Maine, to the punch. So did China, Delhi, India, and at least 120 municipalities and counties around the United States. But after a lengthy two years of democracy at work, a four-hour meeting on June 16 led to the Portland City Council voting 6-3 to approve a fee on plastic and paper bags. The City Council didn’t stop there, however. Members also approved an outright ban on polystyrene foam, often used in coffee cups and takeout food containers. CLF worked to pass, and testified in support of, both ordinances. Portland is now one of the few municipalities in New England with both a bag fee and a polystyrene foam ban.

Let’s look at the bag fee ordinance. It imposes a five-cent fee on both plastic and paper bags at the point of purchase in grocery stores, convenience stores, and any business where food sales are more than two percent of gross sales. (Restaurants and farmers’ markets are excluded.) Retailers retain the entire fee.

Opponents of bag fees or bans make several arguments. They sometimes claim that the environmental effects of plastic bags are minimal. The truth is that in addition to becoming unsightly litter, plastic bags cause significant harm to our oceans and waterways. Here are just a few of the environmental impacts of plastic bags:

  • Plastic bags can take up to 1,000 years to degrade.
  • As plastic bags break down, they form smaller pieces that contaminate our soil and waterways, ultimately entering the food system when animals accidentally ingest them.
  • Plastic bags cause more than 100,000 sea turtle and other marine animal deaths every year when animals mistake them for food.
  • Plastic bags are among the 12 items of debris most often found in coastal cleanups.
  • Nearly 90 percent of debris in our oceans is plastic.

As for paper, while the total after-market impacts of paper bags are arguably less severe than for plastic bags, the upstream environmental harm is substantial. Compared to making plastic bags, manufacturing paper bags creates 70 percent more air pollution and 50 times more water pollutants,consumes four times more energy, and requires three times more water. In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency found that paper degrades at about the same rate as plastic in a landfill.

Another popular but equally dubious argument against bag ordinances is that education campaigns work better at reducing bag consumption and litter.  The reality is that bag fees or bans have proven vastly more effective. For example, after many years of in-store plastic-bag recycling programs in California, less than five percent of all plastic bags are being recycled. In Maine, even those plastic bags that do get recycled frequently get stuck in equipment at recycling facilities. The already small market for the end product of recycled plastic bags also pays very little.

In contrast to education campaigns, Washington, D.C.’s five-cent bag fee reduced bag use by 80 percent in just one year. Moreover, 75 percent of customers used fewer bags. Studies in other cities that have imposed a bag fee have documented similarly successful results.

Perhaps the most common refrain from detractors is that a bag fee will hurt businesses. The contrary has been true. For example, in D.C., 78 percent of business owners found zero or positive effects on their businesses as a result of the bag fee. In addition to seeing less litter around their stores, businesses saved costs by not needing to purchase as many bags. As one Portland city councilor pointed out at the meeting, retailers failed to provide the City Council with even one instance of a business being financially harmed by a bag fee ordinance.

The polystyrene foam ban ordinance applies to all food vendors in Portland (excluding packaging for live seafood). Currently, no facility in the city recycles polystyrene. If a recycling center accepts it in the future, the ordinance becomes null and void.

Polystyrene comes with many environmental problems, too. Here are several:

  • The Environmental Protection Agency classifies styrene as a possible human carcinogen. Workers who manufacture or work with styrene may experience myriad adverse health effects, including irritation of the skin, eyes, and upper respiratory tract, and various gastrointestinal problems. Chronic exposure affects the central nervous system.
  • Manufacturing polystyrene pollutes the air we breathe and creates substantial amounts of liquid and solid waste.
  • Polystyrene is a significant danger to marine life in Casco Bay because animals mistake it for food as it breaks apart into smaller pieces.

Taking polystyrene out of the waste stream altogether is the right thing to do.

At the top of any waste hierarchy is reducing the total amount of material that may eventually become waste. By passing these two ordinances, Portland takes an important step toward creating a greener, healthier Maine. We encourage other cities in New England to follow Portland’s lead.

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