Plastic Shopping Bags & Environmental Impact

February 14, 2018

Plastic shopping bags have been ubiquitous in our society since first being introduced in the late
1970s. They are made from oil and natural gas, never degrade, and when disposed of, contribute
to the pollution of our environment. Only about 5% are recycled. According to the
Environmental Protection Agency, the average American uses 150 plastic bags per year, which is
probably a conservative estimate.

There are about 16,000 residents of Waterville. That means Waterville residents alone use
approximately 2,400,000 plastic bags every year. That does not include residents of other towns
who shop in Waterville and use plastic bags. A plastic bag is about a foot across. If you put
2,400,000 plastic bags end to end, it would stretch over 8,000 football fields. This amounts to a
lot of waste, waste that can be prevented.

All told there are about 140 different plastic bag reduction ordinances in towns and cities in the
United States. In Maine, the towns of Bath, York, Freeport, Brunswick, Kennebunk, Saco and
Belfast have all banned plastic bags in local stores. Portland, South Portland, Topsham, Cape
Elizabeth and Falmouth have placed a small, 5 cent fee on plastic shopping bags to discourage
their use. Big cities like Boston are banning plastic shopping bags too!
Sustain Mid Maine Coalition’s Rethink, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle Team is working on an
ordinance for the Waterville City Council to consider. It 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 sales. This would apply to grocery stores, restaurants, cafes, and convenience
stores where the majority of plastic bags originate. It would not apply to businesses that do not
sell food, like retailers and clothing stores. The prohibition would not apply to thin plastic
produce, meat, and seafood coverings at the grocery stores. Nor would the prohibition apply to
dry cleaning bags or plastic newspaper sleeves.
2) Paper would still be available for free at check out, thus supporting our local forest products
industry instead.
3) This ordinance would encourage, and remind, folks to bring their own reusable shopping bags
to the store with them.

But this is just a starting point, not a final ordinance proposal. We want to hear from you, both
residents and business owners of Waterville, so that your feedback can be incorporated into the
proposed ordinance before bringing it to the City Council for consideration in the spring.
At the polls in Waterville on Election Day in November, we spoke with nearly 1,000 voters and
handed out about 300 free reusable shopping bags. The response we got was overwhelmingly

As our City continues to revitalize itself, we need to consider how clean streets, parks, trails, and
riversides can contribute to our ongoing revitalization. Limiting the use of plastic bags is one
small measure that can make a difference.

If you would like to join the effort to make this happen, the next meeting is to be held on
Tuesday, January 16 at 8:30 AM in the Front Street Conference Room of Waterville City Hall.
Please also join us for a free documentary film screening of Bag It which examines the much
wider problem of plastic pollution throughout our society. The screening will take place on
Saturday, February 3rd at 10:15 a.m. at Railroad Square Cinema. All are welcome to attend.

Todd Martin is a Waterville resident who works at the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

Last modified: February 14, 2018

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