Commentary

Lawmakers to consider plastic bag ban, paper bag fee

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It has not been difficult to find bills this legislative session that would be harmful to businesses or consumers in Maine. One such bill is LD 1532, sponsored by Rep. Holly Stover, which seeks to ban plastic bags in Maine and impose a fee on the use of paper bags. The measure is scheduled for a public hearing before the Environment and Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday, April 24 at 10 am.

While the goals behind this bill are certainly laudable, LD 1532 would hurt consumers and do little to help the environment, and the language of the bill is so flawed it may not achieve its intended result.

LD 1532 prohibits retailers from using plastic bags, imposes a five cent fee per recycled paper bag used, exempts people that use an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card from paying the fee and includes numerous carve-outs that exempt businesses from the plastic bag ban, undercutting the purpose of the bill.

Banning single-use plastic bags does not have the effect one would expect. While a ban may have an effect on litter and plastic pollution, there is little that it would do for the environment. The Danish Environmental Protection Agency found that a paper bag would need to be reused 43 times for its environmental impact to be less or equal to one use of a disposable plastic bag. Will consumers reuse a paper bag provided by a retailer this many times to recover the cost to the environment created by this change?

In addition, a new mandate on business that would hurt consumers is the last thing we need in this state. Business continue to struggle adjusting to annual minimum wage increases and the legislature is actively considering bans on other products such as polystyrene, as well as tweaks to unemployment, workers compensation, sick time, medical leave and other policies.

LD 1532 unnecessarily overrides the free market, banning the most cost effective option for retailers (and their popular choice), and then imposes a fee on the most likely alternative. While five cents per bag does not appear to be a large expense to Mainers, the cost adds up over time. Nickel and diming consumers and mandating prohibitions is the wrong approach to changing consumer behavior.

LD 1532 also exempts EBT card users from paying the five cent fee for paper bags. However, Mainers that earn below the federal poverty level and do not receive this form of government assistance would be subject to the five cent fee (nearly 30,000 Mainers). According to The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, approximately one-third of Mainers that utilize SNAP benefits earn above 100 percent of the federal poverty level.

If the purpose of exempting EBT users from the fee is to mitigate the harmful effects of LD 1532 on low-income Mainers, the five cent fee on paper bags should be scrapped entirely. Partly because EBT card usage is not an adequate indicator of poverty, but also because thousands of other Mainers who struggle to make ends meet (or live on tight budgets) will be unable to afford the increase.

LD 1532 includes a handful carve-outs for specific businesses and activities. Pharmacies, laundromats, food pantries and newspapers could still use plastic bags, and supermarkets could still make them available for consumers buying loose items such as fruit, vegetables or baked goods. You could also buy a fish from a pet shop that comes in a plastic bag under LD 1532. But why do these businesses and activities get a pass? If the goal of LD 1532 is to reduce or eliminate litter caused by plastic bags, why include so many carve-outs?

Government should not arbitrarily dictate which businesses are allowed to sell a specific product. LD 1532 simply picks winners and losers without achieving its intended goals. Plastic bag litter will continue to exist because the bill includes so many exemptions, and the alternative products that will be used in place of plastic will be more expensive and just as, if not more, harmful to the environment over the long term.

LD 1532 may be well-intentioned, but it would do little for Maine people.
Plastic bag bans are far from widely accepted, and for good reason. Only three states have banned plastic bags since 2014, and Maine should not be the next to do so.

About Adam Crepeau

Adam Crepeau serves as a policy analyst at The Maine Heritage Policy Center. He can be reached at acrepeau@mainepolicy.org.

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