Comments to Waterville City Council 11/8/2017

Comments read by Waterville resident Todd Martin at the November 8th 2017 Waterville City Council:

Good evening. Todd Martin, Ward Six. This Saturday we will celebrate Veterans Day. We will honor the men and women who fought for this country, who served with honor, and made the ultimate sacrifice. I live just around the corner from Veteran’s Memorial Park here in town, a place I spend a fair amount of time in during the warmer months. Last Friday, I grabbed a trash bag and some rubber gloves and cleaned up litter from the park. I was disgusted with what I found – about a dozen plastic shopping bags littering the park and the veterans monument, along with a trash bag full of Styrofoam cups, food wrappers, cigarette butts, beer cans and alcohol bottles. I love this country and I love this city. To me it is the ultimate sign of disrespect to litter and pollute this great country and city of ours, especially the public parks honoring our veterans.

The next day, I grabbed a few more trash bags and rubber gloves and cleaned up the Head of Falls and Two Cents bridge area. I found about 70 plastic shopping bags lining the fence posts, caught in trees, and wrapped up in tree roots. Many were cut up in to little pieces having been mowed over, making it more challenging to pick up and more likely it would end up in the river and eventually the ocean.

On Halloween, I and six other volunteers cleaned up North Street between the Alfold Youth Center and Quarry Road. We picked up 40 plastic shopping bags, along with 7 bags full of trash and litter. This needs to change.

Plastic shopping bags have been ubiquitous in our society since first introduced in the late 1970s. They are made from oil, never degrade, pollute our environment, and only about 5% get recycled. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American uses 150 per year. A conservative estimate if you ask me. Nevertheless, there are about 16,000 residents of Waterville. That means 2,400,000 plastic bags are used in Waterville alone every year. That means Mainers use approximately 199,650,000 every year. About a trillion are used worldwide every year. But let’s focus on Waterville. A plastic bag is about a foot across. If you put the 2,400,000 plastic bags Waterville uses each year end to end, it would stretch over 8,000 football fields. This needs to change.

Let’s assume that half of these bags, 1,200,000 come from one of the Hannafords here in town. According to the Hannafords at Elm Plaza, they pay $32 for a box of 2,000 plastic bags. So that means each Hannaford store in Waterville is paying approximately $19,200 annually on handing out free plastic shopping bags. That is nearly $40,000 every year spent by Hannafords in Waterville alone. This needs to change.

All told there are about 140 different plastic bag ordinances in the US. California and Hawaii have banned them all together. Chicago banned them in 2014. Washington, DC and Dallas charge for bags, paper and plastic. Plastic bags are no longer used in Nova Scotia, Quebec and Manitoba. Europe and Asia has cracked down on them too.

A dozen Maine towns have already banned or placed a small, 5 cent fee on plastic shopping bags to discourage their use. The towns of Bath, York, Freeport, Brunswick, Kennebunk, Saco, Cape Elizabeth and Belfast have all banned plastic bags in their towns. The towns of Portland, South Portland, Topsham and Falmouth have all placed a 5 cent fee on them to deter their use. In my role as an outreach Coordinator at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, I have helped volunteers in several of these towns pass their local ordinances.

Earlier this year the Maine State legislature passed a bill, LD 57, that would have established a statewide policy “to promote the use of reusable bags and locally recyclable alternatives to disposable polystyrene foam food service containers” by encouraging municipal-level regulations. The bill set a goal of 20 municipalities adopting local ordinances discouraging the use of disposable plastic bags and foam food or drink containers by 2019. That goal would rise to 50 municipalities by 2029, however the Governor vetoed the bill and the House of Representatives sustained the veto. Therefore it is up to Maine towns to take action at the local level.

The Sustain Mid Maine Coalition’s Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle Committee is working on an ordinance to bring forward to you, the City Council of Waterville, that would do the following:

1.) Prohibit the use of plastic shopping bags at businesses in Waterville where food sales make up 2% or more of total sales. This would apply to grocery stores, Walmart, restaurants, cafes, and convenience stores where the majority of these plastic bags come from. It would not apply to businesses like Home Depot, Staples, retailers, clothing stores, etc. This does not apply to thin plastic produce, meat, and seafood bags at the grocery stores, dry cleaning bags, or plastic newspaper sleeves. As in other Maine towns, The City Code Enforcement Officer would enforce this ordinance.

2.) We are not proposing any changes to the use of paper bags at businesses in Waterville. They would still be available for free at check out. This will support the forest products industry rather than the oil industry.

3.) This ordinance would encourage folks to bring their own reusable shopping bags from home to the store with them.

Now, this is just a starting point, not a final ordinance proposal. We want to hear from you, the residents of Waterville, and Waterville business owners and incorporate their feedback in to the proposed ordinance. Our plan is to get feedback from the community in the coming months, draft the ordinance early next year, and bring it forward to you for consideration in late winter or early spring. You, the city council, could enact and put it in place, which happened in Bath, Saco, Portland, South Portland, York, Falmouth, Brunswick, and Belfast, or you could send it to the voters to decide at the polls, which passed in Freeport, Kennebunk, Topsham. Yesterday, we had a table at the polls here in Waterville. We spoke with nearly 1,000 voters, collected 300 signatures on this petition which reads, “I support banning plastic bags in Waterville” and handed out about 300 free reusable shopping bags. The response we got was overwhelmingly positive. Personally, about 75% of the conversations I had with folks were positive. Many people where very excited about our effort and gladly signed our petition. About 20% of people did not have an opinion, and 5% were opposed.

Moving forward our committee will be organizing a number of activities to educate the public and move this proposal forward:

  • Talking to Waterville business owners about our efforts and get their reactions and input.
  • Community trash clean up days to clean up our city
  • Screenings of the documentary “Bag It” about the plastic bag problem around the world
  • Public presentations for folks to learn more about plastic bag pollution.

I can talk to you all day about the environmental problems of plastic shopping bags, but look at it this way. As our city continues to revitalize itself, as more businesses invest in Waterville, and as Colby continues to pour money in to our downtown, we need to clean up our city to attract new and retain existing residents and businesses. What I have seen over the last few weeks picking up litter and trash around town has been eye opening. We need to consider how clean streets, parks, trails, and riversides can contribute to the revitalization of our great town. Limiting the use of plastic bags is one way, and I hope we can move this initiative forward in the coming months. Thank you, I am happy to answer any questions.   

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