A major challenge facing towns and cities across Maine is reducing the costs of managing the municipal solid waste their residents and local businesses produce.
While the state can shift management costs onto producers and levy landfill taxes, municipalities’ options are more limited. As a result, they’ve focused largely on increasing recycling. But the most effective approach to cutting the costs of handling waste is reducing or eliminating it to begin with.
Maine’s municipalities have the power to pass ordinances that reduce certain problematic consumer products that are generated constantly and in significant volumes, are not recycled, cause local environmental problems, and have viable and preferable substitutes. Two such consumer products are single-use shopping bags and single-use expanded polystyrene (EPS) food containers.
There are 242 local ordinances across the U.S. addressing shopping bags and 148 covering EPS food containers. In Maine, Falmouth, Freeport, Kennebunk, Portland, South Portland, Topsham and York have adopted shopping bag ordinances; Brunswick, Freeport, Portland, Saco, South Portland, and Topsham have adopted EPS ordinances.
According to studies, only 1.5 percent to 3 percent of plastic bags are recycled, meaning that at least 97 percent are used and then discarded, usually after only one, short use — after which they easily become litter.
Shifting to paper bags is not the answer. Although the recycling rate for paper bags is about 50 percent, they cost towns more to collect, transport and recycle them because they weigh considerably more. It is well documented that on a lifecycle basis, paper bags, which are not produced in Maine, have a greater environmental impact than plastic bags.
The recycling rate of EPS food containers is worse; various estimates peg it at around 1 percent. This means 99 percent are discarded, and given the material’s lightness, propensity to break apart, and resistance to degradation, a significant portion of EPS containers never make it to the landfill. They become persistent and expensive litter instead. Based on a study in Portland, municipal litter cleanup costs are 17 cents to 79 cents per piece.
We don’t have Maine-specific data to tell us how many plastic bags and expanded polystyrene containers we consume in Maine. But various industry and government sources estimate the annual per-capita consumption of single-use shopping bags to be 439 (319 plastic and 120 paper). That means that, prior to any bag ordinance passing in Maine, the state went through 587.98 million single-use shopping bags in 2015. And this is a conservative number because it does not include consumption from tourists.
For EPS food containers, the estimated annual, per-capita consumption amounts to 192.3 items — cups, plates, bowls, clamshells and trays. In 2015, again not including tourists, Mainers consumed a minimum of 256.9 million EPS food items based on national estimates.
In Maine, five of the seven municipalities with a plastic bag ordinance on the books levy a 5-cent fee (kept by the retailer) on single-use shopping bags; the other two, York and Kennebunk, chose an outright ban on plastic bags with no fee on paper.
Research has demonstrated that fees have been highly effective at reducing consumption while preserving consumer choice. Portland grocery stores have reported a dramatic shift in consumers choosing to use reusable bags. But a negative consequence of banning one product is a likely increase in another that could obviate environmental and cost benefits.
In 1991, Maine attempted to shift consumption from plastic to paper bags with a law requiring retailers to offer paper bags unless a customer specifically requested plastic. There was a dramatic decrease in plastics bags, but the corresponding increase in paper bags increased costs to retailers and municipalities, resulting in the law’s repeal.
Similar to the rest of the country, all of Maine’s EPS ordinances on the books ban food containers (three ordinances also ban the use of polystyrene packaging for meat, fish, produce and eggs). Recyclable and compostable substitutes are readily available and have been successful.
These two approaches are important steps municipalities across Maine can take to reduce waste management and litter collection costs, all while creating a cleaner environment — which is especially important to our No. 1 industry, tourism.
As more municipalities consider how to cut back on these disposable products, they should reach out to the other municipalities that have tried to do the same and to researchers to learn what has worked, what to avoid, and what can work best in their community.
Travis P. Wagner is a professor in the department of environmental science and policy at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.