On Nov. 6, Damariscotta, Newcastle and Waterville joined 17 other Maine communities who have passed plastic bag bans. Rep. Mick Devin (D-Newcastle) said the votes mark the tipping point of a possible plastic bag ban statewide in the next legislative cycle.
In Damariscotta, the ban passed 692-509; Newcastle approved its ban 756-419. Damariscotta will enact its ordinance Dec. 13. Newcastle’s ordinance, which also includes styrofoam containers, will begin March 1.
Devin, a marine biologist at Darling Marine Center, has been concerned about plastics for a long time.
“There are a lot of reasons not to want plastics in the aquatic and marine environments,” he said.
Chiefly, plastics don’t break down completely in the environment. They break apart, and small flakes can be consumed by filter feeders and other predators up the food chain. In Maine, plastics are detected in lobster and fin fish, although oysters and clams appear to be able to expel plastics the same way they expel sand and other bits of grit in the ecosystem.
Predator species carry the plastics up the food chain. Because plastics don’t break down, they stay in these species that people and animals eat. “You’ve seen photographs of birds during autopsies, full of colorful bits of plastic,” Devin said. “Turtles go after plastic bags, because in water, they look like jellyfish, one of their favorite foods. Animals with a belly full of plastic essentially starve to death.”
He said larger animals, too, can die this way. A pilot whale in Thailand this summer died of starvation after consuming plastic bags.
Larger fish, like tuna, eat smaller fish that have eaten plastics, and end up with the waste in their systems. When fishermen harvest tuna, that waste – now in impossibly small particles with concentrated cancer-causing chemicals – moves from the marine environment to the dinner table.
Chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA), recently banned in Maine for products designed for children, is one of the chemicals that concentrate in plastic. It can cause brain and nerve injury, and has caused reproductive harm in laboratory animals. In addition, studies have shown that known cancer-causing hydrocarbons such as PCBs and PAHs also concentrate on microplastics.
Devin said much of the plastic gathers in gyres in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The North Atlantic Gyre is in the Sargasso Sea, where Maine’s glass elvers’ parents spend most of their lives. It is also known as the Sargasso Sea Garbage Patch.
Because plastics are made from fossil fuels, we must wean ourselves off them, Devin said. Fossil fuels are implicated in climate change, which in turn causes atmospheric and sea warming, and sea level rise.
“And there is really no place to put the plastics, even if we were being responsible with them,” he said. “The market for plastic recycling is drying up in China, and not all plastic is recyclable anyway. Right now, we are dumping plastics in the landfills.”
Lincoln County, which had accepted both Plastics #2 and mixed plastics (#1-7), is now only taking Plastics #2, which include things like milk bottles. County Administrator Carrie Kipfer said there is no market for the mixed plastics anymore, since China has enacted the National Sword plastics ban. Without a market, the county’s mixed plastics are either going to the landfill or being stored for the day a market opens up. That will result in costs rising for landfill tipping fees, and decreases in the county’s recycling revenues. Costs for towns that use single-stream recycling are rising, too, since there is no real market for most of the plastic.
This year, Devin said, there are 10 bills to address plastics during the legislative session. Three are his. It’s a far cry from his first term in office, he said.
“In 2012, I tried to put in a plastic bag ban, and couldn’t even get the Democrats to support it. We were a bit ahead of the wave in Maine, but it’s here now, and we’re going to take advantage of it and put laws in place governing as much plastic as we can.” Devin expects a lot of legislators will change their minds and support the ban. “This is an issue for a lot of people who didn’t know anything about it years ago. People can see pictures of the Atlantic and Pacific gyre plastic fields and they’re not saying we don’t have a problem anymore.”
In a state dependent on its marine ecosystem, plastics are a huge priority, Devin said.
Part of the argument in 2012 was, no towns had plastic bag bans. “We couldn’t know whether people wanted it. But today, we have 20 towns which have enacted plastic bag bans on their own. Now the state has a direction from the towns, and we can move forward.”
The first community to ban plastic bags was South Portland in 2014, followed shortly by coastal communities in York and Cumberland counties and eventually, Brunswick and Bath.
Devin said he would like to phase in a statewide plastic bag ban. “No one will be told, ‘No plastic bags at the end of this year.’ But we need to begin the process.”
The plastic-related bills include:
- A plastic bag ban and a paper bag fee: Statewide ban on plastic bags, five cent fee on paper bags.
- A bottle bill handling fee increase: Increases the fee on bottlers to provide more money for redemption centers.
- A measure to “connect the cap”: Requires that single-use beverage bottle caps be tethered to the bottle.
- A polystyrene foodware ban: Prohibits the use of polystyrene foam for food packaging.
- A bill on single-use foodware and litter: Requires that reusable and durable foodware is used for dine-in customers (exception: foil wrappers and tray liners); and that to-go foodware containers be made of biodegradable, compostable, or easily recyclable materials. Straws, stirrers, cutlery, napkins would be available only by request or at self-serve stations. A 25 cent fee is charged for to-go foodware containers.
- Tobacco waste extended producer responsibility: Producers of tobacco products would pay fees that fund tobacco product litter prevention and education.
- Smoke-free beaches: Prohibit smoking on all of Maine’s beaches.
- An intentional balloon release ban: Prohibit intentional releases of balloons, which sometimes occur at weddings, graduations, or new business openings.
- Extended producer responsibility for packaging: Makes producers of packaging partially or wholly responsible for managing the packaging wastes from the products they sell.
- A plastic debris commission: to address the issue of micro-plastics in Maine and bring solutions to Maine residents.