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Environment and Outdoors

Maine's Plastic Bag And Polystyrene Bans Finally Taking Effect On Thursday

Plastic Bag Ban Pennsylvania
Matt Rourke
/
AP
Pedestrians carry plastic bags in Philadelphia, Wednesday, March 3, 2021. Philadelphia and three other municipalities in Pennsylvania sued the state Wednesday over what they say was a covert abuse of legislative power to temporarily halt local bans or taxes on plastic bags handed out to customers by retailers.

Beginning Thursday, restaurants and retail stores across Maine will have to make two major shifts that are designed to reduce harm to the environment: they’ll no longer be able to offer plastic bags to their customers, and they’ll have to stop using polystyrene foam food and beverage containers.

The Maine legislature passed both bans in 2019, with the goal of reducing multiple forms of pollution associated with plastics — both foam and plastic bags are hard to recycle and can easily get littered in areas outside of a landfill, and they also require additional resources to make. But each ban was delayed during the coronavirus pandemic.

Maine was the first state to enact a ban on polystyrene foam containers, and that rule was originally set to take effect in January 2021, but it was delayed because of supply chain challenges during the pandemic. The ban applies to a wide variety of stores and eating establishments.

However, the Legislature passed some modifications this year, including a four-year exemption for packaging of raw meat and eggs.

The plastic bag ban was originally set to begin in April 2020. But its enforcement was also pushed back, first over concerns about the transmissibility of the virus through reusable bags, and then because of supply chain disruptions affecting paper and reusable bags, according to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

As part of the new rule, the state is encouraging shoppers to bring their own reusable bags when they go shopping. Stores may provide either recycled paper bags or reusable bags to their customers, although most retailers will need to charge customers a 5 cent per-bag fee for paper bags.

There will also be an exemption that allows stores to wrap unpackaged goods such as deli meat and baked items in plastic bags, but businesses that choose to do so must also provide a public drop-off location for plastic bags to be recycled.

Walmart has announced that it’s going “bagless” at all its Maine stores as part of its sustainability initiatives. It has launched a similar effort in Vermont.

At the Hannaford grocery chain, spokesperson Ericka Dodge says the company already has experience in other states that have imposed similar bans, and the chain will have reminders encouraging customers in Maine to bring their reusable bags.

“We'll continue that conversation in-store. We will have a number of in-store signs that remind folks of the plastic bag ban, and to bring their reusable bags. We'll have an over the PA message also running to just serve as a reminder,” she says.

The chain will still offer paper bags, if needed, but Dodge says the company encourages customers to use reusable bags, which have a lower environmental impact.

Melissa Gates, the Northeast regional manager for the Surfrider Foundation, says her group is working with local stores to provide reusable cotton bags to low-income residents.

“That's where these bags really will be helpful, is to help these folks have access to quality, reusable bags that they can wash in the machine, or hand wash them. Just use them for the next 20 years,” she says.

The group is initially distributing 600 bags and is hoping to expand the effort in future months.

Local municipalities including Portland and Brunswick already have instituted plastic bag bans in recent years.

Sarah Nichols, the Sustainable Maine director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, applauds the implementation of the new bans.

She says they will help force companies to make changes that will ultimately benefit the consumer, by decreasing the amount of plastic that ends up in the waste stream and creating more of a market for recycled and reusable products.

But Nichols says she wishes they had not been delayed, and is also pushing for broader reforms, such as the comprehensive legislation that could make Maine the first state in the nation to require companies that generate packaging waste help pay for its disposal.

“This is the low-hanging fruit of tackling our waste crisis,” she says of the new bans.