PORTLAND — Styrofoam cups and food packaging may soon be banned in Portland. And plastic shopping bags could be the next target.

The City Council formed a Green Packaging Working Group earlier this year and assigned it to develop ordinances to eliminate sales of food and drinks in polystyrene packaging — better known by the brand name Styrofoam — and reduce the use of plastic shopping bags in the city.

That work will begin Monday when the working group assembles for its first meeting.

Councilor Edward Suslovic, who is leading the task force, said he expects to have an ordinance banning polystyrene endorsed by the committee by its second or third meeting.

“We’re not here to debate whether or not” to ban polystyrene, Suslovic said. “The task force is charged with crafting an ordinance.”

The ordinance would go to the full council for final approval.

Plastic bags and polystyrene are non-biodegradable, petroleum-based products that aren’t easily recycled and therefore end up in trash cans or littering streets and accumulating in waterways.

A news release from the city Thursday said polystyrene poses “serious environmental and public health risks,” while plastic bags are a common form of litter that pollutes soils and waterways.

An estimated 20 million pounds of the products enter the nation’s waste stream each year, and 1.7 million pounds enter surface waters, endangering fish and animals, the city’s release said. Less than 1 percent of plastic bags are recycled, it said.

Portland officials expect the ban on polystyrene to move forward quickly, while the policy on plastic bags takes more time to develop.

Not everyone in Portland is ready to give up Styrofoam.

Shawna Humiston, who got a coffee Thursday afternoon at the Dunkin’ Donuts at One City Center, said she vowed to never again stop at the Dunkin’ Donuts in Freeport after she got a coffee there in a paper cup. Freeport banned the foam packaging in 1990.

“I hate them,” Humiston said of paper cups. “They don’t keep things warm. They’re awful.”

Bruce Harvey, who also was at the Dunkin’ Donuts, said it would take him time to adjust to paper cups, too. “It does change the flavor of the coffee,” he said.

The city’s efforts follow Portland Public Schools’ decision to replace polystyrene trays with Maine-made paperboard trays at the beginning of this school year.

Portland’s City Council launched the effort in June, voting to move toward a ban on sales of polystyrene packaging. The working group, formed this year, is made up of representatives from Environment Maine, the Maine Restaurant Association, the Maine Audubon Society, the Maine Grocers Association, local businesses and residents.

The group will meet at 5 p.m. Monday in Room 24 at City Hall.

Suslovic said the polystyrene ban will likely be modeled after Freeport’s ordinance, which prohibits retailers from selling food or drinks in foam packaging. Violations can carry fines of $250 to $500.

Representatives from the town of Freeport and its business community will be at Monday’s meeting to talk about how the program has worked, he said.

One major user of polystyrene is Dunkin’ Donuts, which has a representative on the working group.

Ed Wolak, who owns 15 Dunkin’ Donuts shops in southern Maine, including 11 in Portland, could not be reached Thursday. After the council’s initial vote in June, he said his customers greatly prefer polystyrene cups and should be given the choice.

Richard Grotton, executive director of the Maine Restaurant Association, also serves on the working group. He said the group must make sure there is a reasonable alternative to polystyrene, which can keep food hot or cold at a low price, if it is banned.

“So far, I’m not finding any,” Grotton said.

Finding a way to reduce the use of plastic bags — either through a ban or a per-bag fee — will be more complicated, Suslovic said, so it will be discussed after the polystyrene ordinance is crafted.

In 2011, Portland considered, but tabled, a similar discussion about bags.

In May, the Windham Town Council adopted a resolution asking the Legislature to pass a statewide ban on plastic bags with less than 40 percent recycled material.

The resolution was adopted after a middle school student asked the council to assess a 10-cents-per-bag fee on plastic bags and the town attorney ruled that the town didn’t have the authority to tax items like plastic shopping bags.

Windham’s effort also drew opposition from Helix Poly, a major manufacturer of plastic bags that was represented by the Verrill Dana law firm.

The Legislature also debated a fee aimed at discouraging the use of plastic bags. The discussion led to voluntary reduction efforts by grocery store chains.

Hannaford Supermarkets spokesman Michael Norton said the company has been working to get its customers to switch from disposable plastic bags to reusable cloth bags.

He referred questions about Portland’s efforts to the Maine Grocers Association and the Mainer Retail Association. Neither group could be reached Thursday.

Plastic bags are a common form of litter in Portland, said Alexandra Fields, a preservation associate with Environment Maine who serves on the working group.

“From where I’m sitting now, I can see a plastic bag in a tree,” Fields said Thursday in a phone interview from the group’s offices in the State Theatre building.

Marine animals — from birds to whales — mistake plastic bags for food and can suffocate or starve from eating them, she said.

“Maine’s fisheries are important,” Fields said. “Nothing we use for five minutes should be polluting our environment for a lifetime.”

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at
rbillings@pressherald.com
Twitter: @randybillings