Commentary

Paper or Plastic? Why Choosing In Portland Will Soon Cost You

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In case Portland citizens have forgotten, the City Council’s ordinance regarding disposable bags will be implemented on April 15th, and will soon be charged five cents for each paper or plastic bag used in getting groceries, and will outright ban Styrofoam packaging. While this initiative has a noble cause in trying to protect Portland’s environment, the City Council fails to see the consequences this fee will have on Portland citizens who are poor or have families.

While the Portland City Council has described this new ordinance as imposing a fee, it is essentially a sin tax. Sin taxes are normally imposed on goods that the government highly dislikes, but not enough to ban its sales. Sin taxes are why alcohol, tobacco, fast food and the like cost so much. The local, State, or Federal government does not want these particular goods dispersed, so it inflates the prices of these goods as a sort of deterrence to buying these goods.

Portland is all about “going green”, and disposable bags made of paper, plastic, or Styrofoam do not fit in that mission. Because these disposable bags are not “green”, the City Council wanted to get rid of them without completely banning them all, and thus this ordinance was born.

It is true this is not an actual sin tax, because the money is not going to the Government, but to the stores. However, the basic principle stands, and not taking the money from these bags shows that the City’s major goal is simply to get rid of disposable bags, and has decided to use money to make it happen. However, these efforts tend to have unforeseen consequences, and while this “fee” may help solve one problem, it creates even more problems down the road.

This new ordinance will cripple Portland’s poor and those with families by lowering the amount of food they can purchase with their money, which is something out of character for Portland, a city that tries to go out of its way to help those in need. It is true that the fee is five cents per bag, which does not sound like a lot compared to the normal grocery bill, but that money can add up quick. A poor student like myself tends to go to the grocery store once every two weeks, and I have around eight to ten plastic bags of groceries. That would make my bill increase an extra fifty cents or so each trip, increasing my yearly grocery bill by at least thirteen dollars or so, and that is not including anything double bagged or any spikes in grocery purchases. Those who have lower incomes may not be able to afford this new fee, nor be able to purchase a reusable bag, and will therefore have to buy less food. However small the increase may appear, the example above show what one person is buying for himself. Those with families will see their bills go up even higher, and this fee could cost families meals for their children, which is never good. In a city that prides itself on taking care of the poor and making sure people do not go hungry, this ordinance is out of character.

Portland’s obsession with “going green” will hurt the citizens who need their money most by creating this fee for disposable bags. For those who are worried, Hannaford stores in Portland are distributing free reusable bags from now until April 14th, and will also donate all proceedings from the fee towards food banks and shelters. At least Hannaford sees the problem with this ordinance and is taking measures to make sure no one in Portland is going hungry. If only the same were true for Portland’s City Council.

About Nathan Hitchcock

Nathan Hitchcock is currently a law student at the University of Maine School of Law and volunteers as a researcher for the Maine Heritage Policy Center. Prior to law school, he attended Hillsdale College in Michigan, where he earned a B.A. in Political Economy.

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