Portland’s foam ban and bag fee not about litter or landfills

I support the Portland City Council’s decision this week to ban polystyrene food containers and mandate a five-cent surcharge on non-reusable grocery bags. I just wish the councilors had been more honest about their intentions and their own responsibility for the problems these things cause.

The foam ban and bag fee have been primarily promoted by city officials as a way to curb litter. But as I noted in a column last January, much of the litter on Portland’s streets originates at the curb, when residents put their lidless recycling bins outside in windy weather. And even when the wind is calm, the contents of the city’s often over-stuffed blue bins get upended by scavengers and escape when collection crews are less-than-completely conscientious about ensuring that every item in the bin makes it into the truck.

Other communities (South Portland, for example), solve this by simply providing a larger, lidded container for recyclables. Portland supposedly has a pilot program in the works to do the same, but it clearly hasn’t been given priority over the ban and bag-fee ordinances, which consumed two years’ worth of administrative effort.

In any case, reducing litter is one of the weaker arguments in support of the ordinances. The least persuasive point in favor of the ban and fee that I read was the comment by Will Everitt of Friends of Casco Bay, who asked councilors to consider the $628 million of annual economic activity associated with that body of water — as if some plastic bags floating in the bay were a serious threat to the tourism and fishing industries. This is not to say such litter is harmless (it’s not), but that’s the kind of reasoning that understandably makes opponents of the measures roll their eyes.

I was also disappointed to read the comment by a Casco Bay High School student who pointed out that polystyrene remains in “our landfills” for hundreds of years. I recently attended an afternoon of presentations on environmental issues by other CBHS students — which Councilor Ed Suslovic, a lead promoter of the ordinances, also attended — during which many students made similar points about local landfill capacity.

For the record, communities throughout Cumberland County, including Portland, send their trash to ecomaine’s facility on Blueberry Road, where it’s incinerated to produce electricity and ash. The ash is sent to an “ashfill” on the South Portland/Scarborough line that’s not expected to reach capacity for another quarter-century. Plus, polystyrene, which is almost entirely comprised of air, generates an insignificant percentage of the ash ecomaine buries. While it’s nice that students at this much-lauded expeditionary high school know how to make PowerPoint presentations, it’s appalling that they don’t know where their garbage goes and that no teachers (or city councilors, for that matter) apparently care to tell them.

This ignorance of the basic facts of our ecosystem and the products we use is the real reason Portland’s new ban and fee laws are important. In and of itself, the extra nickel for grocery bags is insignificant compared with the effect the fee will have on our conscience as consumers. The measures passed this week are opening salvos in what I hope will be a sustained counteroffensive against our “throwaway culture.”

The 100 billion plastic bags Americans use and toss every year are one of the most obvious examples of our pervasive wastefulness. There are hundreds more, from water bottles to excessive packaging to my personal pet peeve: leaf blowers. (For Christsake, people, get a rake! Do we really need to burn fossil fuel to move leaves around the lawn?)

The plastic bags and Styrofoam cups that litter our streets and waterways are unsightly, but it’s the invisible byproducts of their manufacture and incineration that are the real problem: the toxic chemicals and global-warming gases produced in every step of the process. The city officials behind the ban and fee should not have been shy about addressing the larger, less localized reasons motivating these ordinances, because those are the reasons why these efforts must be expanded state- and nationwide.

Speaking of honesty, I must admit that I’ve never used a reusable shopping bag at the grocery store. I recycle the bags I get from Hannaford, but I’m under no illusion that this really makes much of a difference. The Portland fee won’t affect me directly (my local grocery store is in Kennebunk), but reading (and writing) about this issue has prompted me to try to change my habits by putting a few reusable bags in the car for future shopping runs. Wherever you live, I encourage you to do the same.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.