Monday, November 26, 2007

Plastic to reusable cloth: Mainers urged to switch

A Bar Harbor lawmaker wants to lessen oil use and help the

November 25, 2007

San Francisco banned them. London may, too.

Ireland charges a fee to use them, and so do Denmark and

Now, Mainers may soon join the global assault on the ubiquitous
plastic grocery bag.

A lawmaker from Bar Harbor wants Mainers to switch from the
thin plastic bags to reusable ones that aren't as harmful to the
environment and don't contribute to our addiction to oil. And
he's got the attention of the grocery industry, which is pledging
to help create a bring-your-own-bags ethic in Maine.

Rep. Ted Koffman, a Democrat and co-chairman of the
Legislature's Natural Resources Committee, said a fee of 20
cents or so, added to each plastic bag, could help shoppers
make the switch to reusable cloth bags and help pay for the
development of inexpensive alternatives, such as plastic made
out of Maine potatoes instead of oil.

"The whole idea is to reduce the amount of plastic bags being
used and put into the system," Koffman said. "There's an
international movement in this direction."

It used to be that the grocery bag debate focused on paper
versus plastic. That one pretty much ended in a draw, since
neither is a clear winner from an environmental perspective.

But now plastic bags are coming under intense pressure
worldwide, mostly because they are everywhere and a significant
amount of oil is used in their production. Plastic bags also have
been maligned around the world because they are a persistent
form of litter that clogs storm drains and chokes sea turtles that
mistake them for jellyfish. For his part, Koffman wants to reduce
their use as a small step toward curbing global warming.

"Why wouldn't we say to ourselves as a society, 'What little things
can we do to reduce our reliance on foreign oil?' " he said. If we
can't stop using oil to make
grocery bags when there are alternatives, Koffman said, how will
we ever stop using it to fuel our cars and heat our homes?

San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban the bags last
spring. The ban took effect last Tuesday. Officials in Boston, as
well as other cities, have also considered a ban.

Koffman came up with a different plan, based in part on the
approach taken by Ireland.

He would place a 20-cent fee -- or something like it -- on each
bag used by customers of large retailers and use the money for
incentives to switch to reusable bags.

Those using reusable bags could get discounts on their
groceries and qualify for lottery drawings, such as $1,000 in
cash or groceries, he said.

Revenue from the fees could also helps pay for research into
plant-based bioplastics, as well as for education about the costs
of disposable plastic bags.

Koffman said it should not be labeled a tax on the bags, because
he doesn't think the government needs to be involved in
handling any of the money. He conceded that the plan would
cost people upfront, but he argued that people who switch to
canvas bags will eventually save money because of the discounts
on groceries.

Koffman proposed his idea in a bill presented this fall, but
legislative leaders voted against bringing it forward during the
upcoming session, which is reserved mostly for emergency

"I get chuckles on this from some of my legislative colleagues,"
he said, "but I'm getting very serious support from the citizenry."

Still, some of the citizenry is less enthusiastic.

"What are we going to use for diapers?" was Jeff Dice's reaction
to the idea as he loaded his car with plastic bags full of
groceries from the Hannaford store on Forest Avenue in

The plastic bags are great for sealing up stinky diapers, he said.
They're also handy for lining his trash can and holding his
recyclables, Dice said.

Other shoppers said the bags are great for cat litter and dog

"I don't actually throw them out without reusing them," said Eliza
Eastman of Portland.

But Betsy Graves of Portland said using fewer plastic bags is not
really as hard as people think at first.

Graves emerged from Hannaford carrying most of her groceries
in canvas bags, which she said can be used over and over. "We
use them for lugging everything around," she said.

She picked up the cloth-bag habit while living in Ireland, where
everybody carries their own bags, she said.

Graves said she simply puts her trash directly into the city's blue
trash bags and doesn't need to line her trash can. She does
bring home an occasional plastic bag, which she uses for
"smelly" trash.

Graves said she is all for encouraging more people to switch to
cloth bags, although she's not sure about the fee.

"That's a great motivator, but then it comes down to poor
people" who will be forced to pay more or invest in reusable
bags, she said. "I'm glad that at least (reusable bags) are around
for people."

Maine's grocers have not jumped behind the fee idea, either.
Koffman is scheduled to meet with representatives of the Maine
Grocers Association this week.

"We really want to proceed over this next year with an
educational program letting people know what their current
choices are," said Amie Joseph, executive director of the

The rejection of Koffman's bill provides more time for the
industry to take voluntary action, Joseph said.

"But we're still going to head down this path and let people know
this is on the radar screen," she said. "We don't think this issue
is going to go away."

Major grocery chains, such as Hannaford Bros. Co. and Shaw's,
already are selling and promoting reusable bags. Hannaford
gives shoppers a 5-cent discount on groceries for each reusable
bag they use.

All Maine stores that offer customers the plastic bags also are
required to collect those bags for recycling. Bags collected by
Hannaford stores, for example, get recycled into composite
decking, said Megan Hellstedt, Hannaford's environmental

"We started selling reusable bags in 1990, or sooner." Now,
Hellstedt said, "It's catching some steam."

Koffman said he's eager to sit down with the grocery store
chains, but he said he also will keep pushing for legislation,
even if that comes after the end of his term.

Koffman, whose son is a veteran of the Persian Gulf War and now
works as an engineer in Baghdad, compares giving up plastic
bags to sacrifices his parents made during World War II.

"If we could make sacrifices then," he said, "why couldn't we
make a small sacrifice now?"

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

Copyright © 2007 Blethen Maine Newspapers


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