2016-02-19 / Front Page

Town to mull plastic bag ban

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — Selectmen have agreed to consider instituting a fee on plastic bags given to shoppers in town, and possibly even banning them entirely.

At their Feb. 9 meeting, board members voted unanimously to refer a proposal submitted by the town’s energy-efficiency advisory committee to its own ordinance subcommittee. According to Town Clerk Merton Brown, if a finished ordinance comes back to selectmen by March 16, it has a shot of making the June ballot.

“This gives ample time for the various legal requirements,” he said, noting the need to complete a public hearing, and possibly two readings before selectmen in time to have the measure ready for absentee ballots, which must be ready for circulation 45 days before voting day.

The current proposal is based on similar programs recently adopted in both Portland and South Portland to discourage the use of so-called “single use” plastic bags. In June 2014, Portland adopted an ordinance requiring that stores which generate at least 2 percent of gross revenue in food sales charge a 5-cent fee per plastic bag given out. That fee, which is subject to sales tax, must appear on store receipts.

South Portland followed Portland’s lead, adopting a similar standard Sept. 21 that goes into effect March 1. York adopted an outright ban in November that begins March 16, while this past January, Falmouth instituted a 5-cent bag fee, mandating that it be assessed by stores larger than 10,000 square feet, starting April 1. In addition, Brunswick, Freeport and Topsham all took a look at bag fees this past fall, with plans to readdress the topic later this year.

The difference in Kennebunk, however, is that the drive has been led by a 10-year-old girl.

Bella Rossborough is now in the fifth grade at Sea Road Elementary School, but it was last year when she took up the cause.

“In fourth grade I read a Scholastic news article on how bad plastic is altogether for animals. I wrote a story on it and my teacher helped me make it into a letter and we brought it to selectmen,” Bella said in a Jan. 22 interview.

Bella read her letter before the Board of Selectmen last June, and, after receiving praise for her initiative, was referred to the town’s energy efficiency advisory committee. She’s attended every single committee meeting since then, in hopes of seeing her idea through to fruition.

“I knew there would be a lot more steps to the process,” Bella said. “It was still kind of nerve-wracking [speaking before selectmen] because they’re, like, really important to the town of Kennebunk and I had never done anything like that.”

But whatever butterflies Bella may have had at the start, she has since become something of a public policy pro.

“She has not missed a meeting and every time she comes, she comes with a new idea or new thing that she did,” said Dennis Anderson, a member of the energy committee. “She’s a very energized young lady and she’s also really energized our committee on this subject.

“She says she’s learned a lot, but our committee has learned a lot from her as well.”

In a survey conducted by Bella and her teacher at Sea Road Elementary School, Jan Gibson – one of the many data points she offered to the committee – 11 stores in Kennebunk use paper bags, seven give plastic and five offer both. Of the stores, 11 support charging a fee when they give out a plastic bag, six do not and five declined comment, Bella said.

Selectmen, however, were far less divided. Chairman Kevin Donovan and Selectman Ed Karytko claimed to never use plastic bags as a matter of principle, while Dan Boothby, who manages Cummings Market, said, “I’d throw them all out tomorrow if I could.”

Still, Boothby said charging a fee per bag would be ineffective, suggesting instead that Bella and her classmates launch a public education campaign.

“We need to change people’s behaviors, not charge them nickels,” he said. “We’re doing this the reverse of how we should be doing it. The selectmen shouldn’t do this, this is something the community should do.”

Underscoring Boothby’s point of view – the fact that the draft ordinance presented by the energy committee would let stores keep the nickel fee.

“This would be a windfall for me,” he said.

That prompted a bit of math from Selectman Christopher Cluff, based on Boothby’s estimate that he sees 1,000 customers per day at his store.

“That’s $18,250 in a year – and that’s only one bag per person,” Cluff said. “So, Dan’s going on vacation on this money. He’s going to Fiji.”

Cluff said he’d rather vote to ban the bags completely, as York has done. And while Selectmen Shiloh Schulte said that would also be his preference, the fee can prompt behavior changes.

“A nickel per bag, maybe 50 cents each time I go to the story, that’s not a big deal, but it will help me to remember to bring my bags that are hanging by the door,” he said.

In that way, the proposal is like Kennebunk’s pay-as-you-throw fee for garbage bags. The town has a 50 percent recycling rate, only because residents have to pay for the trash they toss out, Schulte said.

“Environmentally, there are so many hard problems, but this is an easy one to solve,” he said.

Still, Selectman Deborah Beal said banning plastic bags outright could create a hardship for store owners, given Boothby’s assertion that plastic bags cost $24 per 1,000, while paper bags run to 13 cents each.

Far from being a windfall, the 5-cent fee would help stores cover the cost of providing a greater percentage of paper bags, she said.

In the end, selectmen voted unanimously to refer the proposal to their ordinance subcommittee, but the sudden bout of environmental awareness spurred by Bella may not end there.

“I also recommend that we put some beef into this and also talk about banning Styrofoam and all types of plastic bags, from sandwich bags to other small uses, and let the committee really beat that up,” Selectman Richard Morin said.

Following that, the board gave Bella a round of applause for her efforts, while Karytko promised the committee meeting, yet to be scheduled, will be set at an early hour for a school night, so that she can attend.

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