PORTLAND, Maine — On April 15, the city of Portland will implement new fees on single-use shopping bags and will ban polystyrene containers altogether. Maine’s largest city now faces this question: What difference will it make?

City officials and environmentalists say they expect the measures will cut down on toxic materials found on sidewalks, in storm drains and along waterways. More importantly, supporters argue Portland’s courage on the issue may clear a path for other Maine communities to take similar steps.

But leaders of the business communities most affected by the fees and ban are skeptical the rules will accomplish little more than irking shoppers and driving those dollars out of the city.

“We all want our city to be cleaner, first and foremost,” said Shelley Doak, executive director of the Maine Grocers & Food Producers Association. “It will be interesting to see if the curbside litter of those products is cleaned up or if the overall waste stream is reduced as a result of these ordinances.

“But I just talked to a woman at the State House who said, ‘I’m not going to shop in Portland anymore; I’m going to shop in Westbrook [because of the extra bag fees],’” Doak said.

While Portland is at the forefront of the issue in Maine, it’s not the only city in the country to take action against single-use shopping bags or polystyrene. While many of those measures still are relatively new, data can be gleaned about what effects they’ve had.

The Portland City Council voted 6-3 to approve both ordinance changes in June 2014, with implementation dates about 10 months later. The measures went through several incarnations and months of public meetings before the council settled on the outright polystyrene ban and 5-cent fees for paper and plastic shopping bags.

With single-use bags and polystyrene, city officials have argued ramping up recycling of the materials isn’t economical — that there are relatively few facilities nationally that recycle the materials and that the cost to organize and ship them to those facilities far outweighs what the city would be paid for them.

The rules are meant to apply to Portland businesses handling food products. Retailers selling clothes, jewelry or other non-edible items — as long as 2 percent or less of their revenues come from food sales — are exempt from the bag fees. Companies still can use polystyrene, often referred to by the Styrofoam brand name, to package raw seafood.

“We questioned the rationale behind that bifurcation,” said Christopher O’Neil, government liaison for the Portland Community Chamber of Commerce, which opposed the measures.

O’Neil said the council was able to reduce the number of businesses opposed to the rules by exempting large numbers of them, but doing so made the rules less effective.

“It was a politically expedient move to limit the scope of the ordinance,” he said.

Paper or plastic? Fees on both

Troy Moon, the city’s environmental programs manager, could see three plastic bags stuck up in the high branches of a still leafless tree outside his Portland Street office window. The sight of the bags there, out of his reach and likely to require the work of a bucket truck, needled at him.

He already pulled several bags out of the shrubs in front of the building on his way in to work that day. If the shoppers who used those bags brought reusable bags to the stores instead, he wouldn’t have to look out at the unsightly litter waving in the wind or marshal public services employees and equipment to go pluck them out, he argued.

“For bags, we’re really trying to promote people reducing waste from shopping bags,” he said. “People use them once, then throw them out.”

Supermarket chain Hannaford is trying to be proactive about that. Spokesman Eric Blom said the company began giving away reusable bags at its Portland stores on March 29 and will continue until the day before the ordinance change takes effect. The chain also will donate 25 cents from every reusable bag given away — as well as from those subsequently sold at their usual $1.25 price — to local hunger prevention efforts.

Just in donations from giveaway bags, Blom suggested the company is expecting to donate $25,000 to those charities.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations around these fees, because we knew it would be a major change for our customers,” he said. “We feel as though this will give our customers an opportunity to be prepared for the change.”

Glen Brand, director of the Sierra Club Maine, said the fee “reminds people there are costs, and it’s an incentive for people to bring reusable bags when they shop.” He said his organization would have preferred the citywide ban on single-use bags entirely but said the fees are a step in the right direction.

“This stuff clogs sewers and can interfere with clean water processing in treatment plants,” he said. “It takes man-hours to clean these things out.”

To illustrate the point, Moon carries a poster-size photograph of what appear to be hundreds of plastic bags wrapped around the teeth of Portland drainage pipe gate. Across town, at the waste-to-energy plant run by ecomaine, the machine that sorts recyclables must be shut down at least daily so workers can pull plastic bags from the gears.

“What appears to be a rather benign individual choice turns out collectively to have a really serious impact — particularly here along the coast, where it’s not just a case of litter on the streets or in trees, but it’s getting into the waterways and out into the ocean,” Brand said.

But will tacking small fees onto the bags put a dent in the amount of litter found in the streets, trees or waterways?

Washington, D.C.’s example

Although dozens of communities have exacted measures to reduce reliance on single-use shopping bags, including outright bans and a range of different fee amounts, the city with the most similar bag program arguably is Washington, D.C.

The nation’s capital in 2010 imposed a 5-cent fee on disposable paper and plastic bags after discovering the bags were among the city’s top sources of litter. The organization Environment Washington later reported that in the city’s first year with the fees, the number of plastic bags distributed by retailers per month declined from 22.5 million to about 3 million.

Local environmentalists reported seeing fewer bags in their regular cleanup work along the nearby Anacostia River and other city waterways.

But after what may have been an initial decrease in bag use, tax data from Washington, D.C., indicate consumers may be getting more comfortable with the fees and just paying them. The Washington Post reported last year that in the program’s second and third years, the city actually started seeing an increase in bag fee revenue — about 200,000 bags’ worth.

That will be harder to track over time in Portland because, unlike in Washington, D.C., the bag fees collected in Maine’s largest city will be kept entirely by the food retailers who have no obligation to publicly report their annual revenues. In the nation’s capital, only 1 cent of the 5-cent fee is kept by the retailers, while the other 4 cents go into a publicly trackable river cleanup fund.

“We’re not privy to the numbers of bags retailers use now, so we don’t have empirical data to use as a basis for comparison [to gauge the success of the program],” Moon said.

Brand said he was surprised the Portland measure didn’t draw more support in the business community, because the bag fee will become a revenue stream for food retailers. The San Francisco-based organization Save The Bay reported retailers buy single-use plastic bags for between 2 and 5 cents each, meaning the Portland fee would at worst offset those losses entirely and at best would provide a 60 percent profit margin on each plastic bag distributed.

“You could make the argument it’s saving businesses money,” he said. “Any businesses that look at the numbers would see this as a win from a financial point of view.”

But Doak pointed out that retailers must absorb potentially significant additional costs associated with the transition as well, from training employees how to track outgoing bag numbers to launching customer outreach efforts to updating store point-of-sale systems at the cash registers.

Blom, whose company did not publicly weigh in on the debate over the bag fees, admitted Hannaford incurred some costs associated with preparing for the fees but wouldn’t disclose how much.

Doak said grocers and other food sellers are “in the customer service business at the heart of it,” and any fees that bother customers also bother the business owners trying to accommodate them.

“It’s been, frankly, a lot of work,” she said. “[Store owners and employees] have put a lot of time into coming into compliance.”

Is Portland starting a movement?

The chamber’s O’Neil has long cautioned the City Council that while any one action raising business costs in Portland may not by itself cause a mass exodus of businesses, many actions can add up over time to create an unwelcoming business climate. The bag fees and polystyrene ban come as the city considers raising the minimum wage, for instance.

“Any time Portland does something that makes it [stand alone] in the eyes of the world, we bristle at it,” he said. “On the one hand, Portland enjoys unique status in many respects, and we celebrate uniqueness in many respects. But not always, and these so-called ‘outlier actions’ can have a negative cumulative impact.”

As a city taking action against polystyrene and single-use bags, Portland is by itself in Maine.

But it may not be for long.

Lawmakers in Augusta have proposed at least eight bills seeking, in one way or another, to reduce the use of single-use shopping bags; one bill, sponsored by Rep. Christine Burstein, D-Lincolnville, seeks to ban polystyrene food containers statewide.

At the municipal level, even more conversations are sprouting up, Brand said.

“This program [in Portland] has inspired talk of similar programs in a bunch of other places,” he said. “York had a public hearing [this month]. I know people in Brunswick are thinking about this. Freeport is thinking about [single-use bag restrictions]. Falmouth has talked about it. Portland has inspired interested in other places.”

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.