BELFAST, Maine — To the naked eye, the waters of Blue Hill and Penobscot bays appear pristine, blue and beautiful — a focal point for both residents and tourists who depend on the bays as a place to earn their livelihood or relax.

But if you look at droplets of water from the bays under a high-powered microscope, you are likely to see something that doesn’t belong: Tiny plastic fragments, often invisible to the naked eye, that make their way to Maine waters from myriad sources including fleece jackets and the ubiquitous plastic grocery bags. Once the plastic gets into seawater, it stays, winding up in places like the tissue of harbor seals, according to Maine scientists and environmental activists who want more people to know what’s really in the water.

“It’s a huge, huge problem,” Veronica Young of the Blue Hill-based Marine Environmental Research Institute said. “Anything plastic that gets degraded to this tiny amount is still plastic. It’s still petrochemicals. These chemicals don’t biodegrade. All the junk from our civilization that ends up in the water is still there.”

So when a group of Belfast residents learned about the magnitude of Maine’s problem, they wanted to try to reduce the amount of plastic polluting the bay by starting a movement to ban single-use plastic bags from their midcoast city.

Belfast retiree Anita King said last week that she knew that plastic bags can be hazardous to birds, turtles, marine mammals and other animals. But she and the other participants in this spring’s Penobscot Bay Stewards program decided to take action when they realized that MERI scientists have found 17 plastic fragments per liter in seawater from Blue Hill and Penobscot bays and an average of 177 pieces of microplastics on average in local oysters and mussels.

“Right here where we live, we work, we walk and we play, there is plastic in the water,” she said.

Growing movement to curtail plastic bags

The nascent Belfast effort to ban the bag is the latest in a movement to stop so much plastic from getting into the world’s oceans. Last week, France became the first country to ban disposable cups and plates. Meanwhile, in the past year and a half, six municipalities in southern Maine have either banned or taxed single-use plastic bags: Portland, South Portland, Falmouth, York, Kennebunk and Freeport.

The Freeport bag ban went into effect about two weeks ago, after residents voted in favor of the ordinance in June. In that town, known for its many retail outlets, the ban only applies to stores with at least 2 percent of gross revenue coming from food. If shoppers forget their reusable bags, they can purchase a single-use paper bag for a nickel.

“I go to the local stores where this would have an effect,” said John Egan, who helped organize the Freeport citizen petition to ban the bag. “Probably the best thing to report is that nobody seems to be complaining about it.”

He said he wanted to ban the bags in Freeport in part because of because of Casco Bay, which he described as a “Maine gem.”

“You don’t have to go very very far to find plastic bags just out there in the wild — in drainage ditches or hung up on trees,” Egan said.

York and Kennebunk also have banned single-use plastic bags. Portland, Falmouth and South Portland have instituted a nickel-per-bag fee on such bags. In Bangor, a resident brought the issue to the attention of councilors this summer, and the city’s infrastructure committee discussed the idea of a plastic bag ban or fee. Bangor City Councilor Gibran Graham said Wednesday that the committee has asked city staff to research the effects and reception of the bag fees and bans in other Maine municipalities once they have been in place for a year or so.

“The council expects to revisit the citizen-proposed ban” once they hear the report from city staff, he said.

Eric Blom, a spokesperson for Hannaford, said that the grocery chain does not have specific numbers on the use of plastic bags in the communities that have taxed or banned bags. But, he said, the number of bags used in those places has dropped “by 50 percent or more.”

He pointed out that Hannaford was one of the first major supermarket chains in the country to sell prominently displayed reusable bags to its customers, but added that the company is encouraging people to think about the environmental impact of paper bags when they consider adopting new bag ordinances. It takes more trips to deliver truckloads of paper bags to stores than plastic bags, which take up less space, he said. And making paper bags also uses energy.

“We just hope people will consider not driving from one form of single-use bags to another form of single-use bags,” Blom said. “There are communities that single out plastic. It can drive a lot of people to paper.”

Still, he said, “This is a decision for the local community to make. Hannaford will make whatever decision the community makes work for the customers.”

More support than expected

The fact that the issue is being talked about in more Maine communities is heartening to some, including Young of the Marine Environmental Research Institute.

“I don’t think we intentionally destroy the planet. I think we’re lazy. We don’t pay attention,” she said. “It’s really exciting that Belfast is discussing this.”

Young said that the plastic fragments found in Maine waters can come from many sources, including fleece jackets that shed tiny plastic particles when they are laundered, and microbeads, the tiny plastic spheres used in facial scrubs, toothpaste and other personal care products. Maine lawmakers last year voted to ban the sale of products containing microbeads here by 2019.

But the plastic fragments also come from bags, Young said.

“Plastic bags are ubiquitous throughout the planet. It’s a volume question,” she said. “We in the first world have choices we can make. Not everyone on the planet is in the enviable position of being able to make choices.”

Belfast City Councilor Eric Sanders said this week that he was stunned to learn at the council meeting that the local bodies of water and locally sourced mollusks are full of plastic fragments.

“It brings it home,” he said. “Change is often viewed with suspicion, but I think [targeting plastic bags is] healthy change and something we definitely need to consider and hopefully take action on. Now that they’re bringing awareness of the problem in our own backyard, we have the chance to reduce it.”

Egan, in Freeport, said that banning single-use plastic bags in his town has been very satisfying.

“We found there was more widespread support for this in the community than we expected,” he said. “I think people are aware of this issue generally. And most people, if they get an explanation of the ban being reasonable, will support it.”