Plastic bag litter solution: Put a lid on it!

A task force formed by the Portland City Council is having trouble seeing the forest for the bags fluttering in the trees.

In an attempt to reduce litter caused by disposable plastic shopping bags, the city’s Green Packaging Working Group voted earlier this week to recommend establishing a complicated and burdensome new fee regime, under which certain retailers and all restaurants would be required to charge a dime for each plastic or paper bag provided to customers. A committee is expected to further discuss the proposal in March before the full council weighs in.

When councilors do get a crack at this, they may come to the rather embarrassing realization that the city’s litter problem is primarily their own fault.

Think about it: How do these plastic bags become litter in the first place? Are people walking out of stores and restaurants, placing the contents of the bags in their cars or homes, and then tossing the cheap plastic totes to the winds? Of course not. According to my observations over the years, the main causes of litter are uncovered residential recycling bins and trash cans on the street, both of which are provided and managed by the city.

Portland’s blue-bag residential trash program has been a big success. People are recycling much more than they were before the program was imposed years ago — so much so that the lid-less, blue plastic bins provided for recycling are routinely stuffed beyond capacity with paper, plastic, glass and cans. When I lived on Munjoy Hill, my family of four always needed more than one blue bin to contain the week’s recyclables. (Luckily, there were extra bins at our apartment building.)

You don’t need a task force to figure out that when thousands of people leave uncovered bins full of lightweight materials on the sidewalk for many hours, a lot of that material is going to be picked up by the wind and blown away. Conscientious residents can try to lessen the litter by placing heavier recyclables atop lighter ones, but bottle collectors and seagulls commonly upset that order. The same thing happens when uncovered municipal trash cans downtown are overfull and/or rummaged through by avian and human scavengers.

City officials have already begun to address the latter problem by replacing the open trash cans downtown with high-tech, solar-powered BigBelly trash-compacting contraptions. As I noted in a column more than a year ago, aside from their high upfront cost and the possibility the trash robots will one day overthrow their human masters, the BigBelly machines do keep the streets cleaner.

At least one city official is aware of the real cause of the problem: newly elected Councilor Jon Hinck. In an interview last fall, Hinck suggested the city would be better served by adopting a trash and recycling pick-up program similar to the one across the bridge in South Portland, where residents are provided with two large, lidded containers for trash and recyclables. A friend of mine who moved from Portland to SoPo remarked recently that the bigger recycling containers are especially useful after Christmas, when the amount of wrapping paper and cardboard generated by the festivities far exceeds the capacity of Portland’s blue bins.

There would be a substantial upfront cost for the city to replace the blue bins with larger, lidded containers, but officials have already shown a willingness to spend more in the short term for longer-term savings and less litter by buying more BigBelly trash robots. Property owners may be on the hook for an extra buck next year should the expense result in a property-tax increase. But that’s a far simpler and fairer way to address the issue than establishing and maintaining an ongoing fee regime through hundreds of different stores and eateries, each of which would be required to account and charge for every bag and then calculate the percentage of fee revenue due to the city (six of every 10 cents charged, according to the task force’s proposal).

Why paper bags were included in this scheme is a mystery to me. When was the last time you saw one stuck in a tree or floating in Casco Bay? That said, though preferable to plastic, they are also wasteful. A more public campaign to encourage the use of reusable shopping bags would do more to address this issue than the fee regime now on the table. The most constructive result of this ridiculous proposal will be the extent to which the controversy it generates prompts people to rethink their wasteful bagging habits.

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.