Rockland bag ban: Fee fairness differs as solutions assessed
ROCKLAND – Plastic bags and Styrofoam containers were again the topic of discussion March 5 with the Rockland City Council, which is deliberating ordinance amendments to regulate and outright ban them from the city.
Banning plastic bags and instituting a paper bag fee has been under discussion for several months in Rockland, as the city joins other local municipalities in crafting or enforcing similar ordinances.
As Rockland City Councilors returned to the table March 5 to prepare for the regular Council meeting, March 12, members again weighed the benefits of specific details of a proposed ordinance amendment, Ban on the Use of Plastic Single-Use Carry Out Shopping Bags, Styrofoam Containers and Paper Bags.
Waste Watchers’ Zander Shaw doesn’t want low-income residents to starve as a result of a proposed paper bag fee in Rockland. Tom Peaco, of the regional Chamber of Commerce, fears tourists will avoid towns with bag fees. Heidi Neal, of Loyal Biscuit, sees an issue with categorizing small, downtown businesses with those of major retailers.
Yet their proposed solutions each drew opposing viewpoints as a result of analysis by City Council, especially those looking at a paper bag fee, which was initiated at five cents with a proposed gradual increase to 15 cents. During the March 5 agenda-setting meeting, another option of a straight 10-cent-fee was also suggested.
Shaw’s proposal to exempt recipients of the Women, Infants, and Children’s nutrition program (WIC) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program prompted discussion by council. After searching hundreds of other Maine single-use ordinances, he’d found one that proposed the same exemption. Questions remain, however, as to how retailers would enact that exemption.
Mayor Valli Geiger asked Shaw what the bag fee would accomplish, and suggested that exempting WIC/SNAP recipients protects a limited demographic.
Shaw said studies have proven that consumers forced to be cognizant of where their money was going have changed their behavior.
Councilor Ed Glaser then asked, should not the same be expected from those of all income brackets?
Options exist for getting the bags to people who need them: grant proposals, bag drives, charity organizations such as One Less Worry, according to Glaser.
“We don’t want to talk down to people,” he said. “We want to have the same expectations from everybody in the community – that whether they have money or not, they’re part of the solution rather than part of the problem.”
Seventy-eight percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, according to Geiger. The major retailers that cater those 78 percent are part of the community, as well. Most of them are known to be big dispensers of plastic grocery bags, and most are also known to occupy square footage greater than 10,000 square feet.
However, not all of them do.
City Manager Tom Luttrell pointed out that the Dollar Store encompasses less than 10,000 square feet, whereas some independent downtown enterprises operate in spaces larger than this square footage divide accepted by other communities. Therefore, the proposal to limit a uniform bag ban to only retailers defeats efforts by some individuals to exempt local businesses from any bans or fees.
Which leads to the next issue.
“It would be a shame,” Peaco said prior to a single-use ordinance workshop, “for Rockland to act in a vacuum. What would be a shame is to have unintended consequences of people making choices about where they are going to go shopping, based on what town has what bag ordinance.”
Luttrell followed up on that suggestion, only to learn that the town of Thomaston doesn’t have any single-use carry-out ordinance on the table. Camden has one, proposed by the Camden Conservation Commission, but which remains under discussion.
Other minor amendments are also being considered.
According to Glaser, the United Postal Service will not ship fish in a non-polystyrene container. Therefore for single-use meat trays definitions within the ordinance will now include the word fish.
Restaurant paper bag fee exemptions are also in proposal, which forces a clarification of how a restaurant is defined. And Glaser, sponsor of the ordinance, wanted to leave plastic straw usage off the ordinance, favoring community education instead.
A community letter supporting a uniform bag ban had accumulated signatures of 103 individuals, 20 businesses and six organizations prior to the meeting, according to Nathan Davis. That letter can be viewed at GreenRockland.me.
The new proposals are “starting to complexify what was a fairly simple ban,” said Rockland Mayor Valli Geiger, during the March 5 agenda-setting meeting. “So to me, we have a year to work on this.”
Reach Sarah Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org