WATERVILLE — The group that asked the City Council to put a proposed ordinance banning plastic shopping bags at large retailers on the November ballot is defending the controversial move, even as the mayor on Wednesday leveled fresh attacks against the effort and those behind it.

But members of the Sustain Mid-Maine Coalition say Mayor Nick Isgro is trying to confuse the public with his messages against the ordinance.

“I think what he’s trying to say is plastic bags can be used for other purposes, such as picking up cat litter and lining waste cans, but they’re not intended for that use,” said Todd Martin, a member of the coalition, responding to statements Isgro has made about a “reusable bag ban.”

“I think he’s trying to confuse the public by saying we’re going after reusable shopping bags, which is antithetical to what we’re actually trying to do,” Martin said. “His Facebook post and veto message were both very misleading and just one way he’s trying to confuse people.”

Last week, Isgro vetoed the council’s decision to place a question on the November ballot asking residents whether they support a ban on plastic shopping bags at large retail stores. The council will vote Tuesday on whether to override the veto.

So far, 15 communities in Maine have enacted bans or fees on plastic shopping bags, according to the Natural Resources Council of Maine. In Waterville, the proposed ordinance would apply only to businesses of over 10,000 square feet, such as Hannaford, Shaw’s and Walmart.

It also states the ban would apply only to carryout plastic shopping bags, and not to produce bags, or washable fabric, cloth or other reusable bags.

Isgro did not respond to a phone call seeking comment Wednesday, but instead posted again on Facebook about the proposed ban. “Yes, if you haven’t heard, they want to ban those bags you reuse to line your bathroom wastebaskets and make you purchase more trash bags instead,” he wrote.

Members of the Sustain Mid-Maine Coalition — from left, Alan Doulin, of Winslow; Todd Martin, of Waterville; Marian Flaherty, of Waterville; Stu Silverstein, of Waterville; and Linda Woods, of Waterville — hold reusable grocery bags Wednesday that the group has been distributing and a petition signed by residents in support of a ban on plastic shopping bags at large retailers. Staff photo by Rachel Ohm

After he posted the Wednesday message, Isgro did not respond immediately to a question sent via email asking him to define reusable versus nonreusable bags and whether he thinks all bags are reusable.

“Besides being misleading and bad for our environment, the proposed ban on reusable, recyclable plastic bags is a distraction from important issues,” Isgro wrote. “Outside national pressure groups are behind it and the city council and local lobbyists — seeking a political ‘victory’ — have allowed themselves to become caught up in another national trending issue instead of focusing on real victories for our community.”

Martin, who lives in Waterville and also works as outreach coordinator at the Natural Resources Council in Augusta, said the mayor’s repeated references to “a reusable bag ban” is just one way he has sought to confuse people on the issue.

In his veto message Aug. 10, Isgro also warned a referendum would invite “dark money funded influence peddlers” into the city — echoing similar language he used several months ago in criticizing a failed effort to recall him from office. He said no one on the coalition has been willing to say they would not accept “outside money” to work on the campaign in favor of the ordinance.

That’s because the coalition applied for and received a $500 grant from the resources council to buy reusable shopping bags and give them out free to people in Waterville, Martin said.

Melvin Hubbard and Bobbie-Sue Glidden leave Dollar Tree in Waterville on Wednesday, carrying a plastic shopping bag. The pair said they would be against a proposed ordinance to ban plastic shopping bags at retailers over 10,000 square feet. Staff photo by Rachel Ohm

“It doesn’t really sound like dark outside forces to me; it sounds like free reusable shopping bags,” he said. “We’ve heard these same arguments before, during the mayoral recall — that Waterville voters would be under the influence of dark outside money. This is a completely citizen-driven issue by people who live in Waterville and care about this issue.”

In his veto message, he said the coalition is seeking to “take the straw from a child’s milkshake” with future bans on straws and Styrofoam containers, though Martin said the coalition as a group is focused only on banning plastic bags right now.

The purpose, he said, is to reduce litter and the number of bags that get thrown out.

“While the mayor is right that (plastic shopping bags) make up a small portion of our waste stream, when they are not disposed of properly, they end up tangled in trees and bushes, down our storm drains, and into our waterways,” he said. “Plastic bags are not recyclable on the curb in Waterville. When folks place them in their recycling bins and they are collected and transported to Ecomaine, they clog the machines, putting a strain on their business.”

Ecomaine, the company that processes curbside recycling for the city, asked residents in 2016 to stop recycling plastic grocery bags, saying they were clogging machines and the recycling market for bags was weak.

Members of the coalition and an affiliated committee began meeting about a year ago to get community feedback on ways to reduce plastic waste before settling on the idea of a ban for large retailers.

Dennis Mills, 63, of Waterville, seen outside Save-A-Lot on Wednesday in Waterville, said he supports a proposed ordinance that would ban plastic shopping bags at large retailers. Staff photo by Rachel Ohm

On Wednesday in The Concourse, shoppers coming out of Save-A-Lot and Dollar Tree had mixed feelings about the idea.

“I think bags are useful,” said Patrick Laboie, of Winslow, as he left Dollar Tree with several gray plastic shopping bags in hand. “You have a few pigs that throw ’em all over the place and everyone gets blamed. It’s the same thing when some nut job has a gun and everyone gets blamed. It’s the new America.”

Laboie said he reuses the bags for his garbage and cat litter and doesn’t throw them out without reusing them.

Another customer, Melvin Hubbard, also said he would be against a ban because it would be inconvenient, though he said stores could be more proactive about reducing how many bags they use.

“Sometimes they put two things in a bag, when you could put more,” he said. “They do over-accessorize (with bags). Still, what are you going to do? You have to carry it out somehow.”

Nearby at Save-A-Lot, the grocery store already has a fee on plastic bags, as do all their stores across the country, said Manager Toby Rose, who is part of the Sustain Mid-Maine Coalition committee that looked at plastic bags.

“I do support it, especially as an avid hiker. I can’t tell you how many times I’m out in the woods and see plastic bags floating around,” Rose said.

At Save-A-Lot, he said, the store does get a small amount of pushback by not offering free plastic bags, but most people get used to it.

“As you can see, people bring in reusable bags,” Rose said, gesturing to customers packing their groceries in the bags and stacks of reusable bags for sale at checkout counters. “At the beginning they didn’t, but more and more we’re seeing it. I think there will be resistance at first, but I think it’s a good thing.”

Customer Dennis Mills, of Waterville, also said he supports the ban.

“I don’t like (plastic) in the environment,” said Mills, who was carrying his groceries in a cardboard box. “I’m an animal lover. I’ve seen too many (problems) with it. I just like (reusable) bags or boxes.”

Martin said the coalition also solicited feedback from other businesses and grocery stores that would be affected.

Greg Oullette bags his own groceries with a plastic bag Wednesday after shopping at Save-A-Lot in Waterville. Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

“They’re adjusting to this in other towns and they wouldn’t take a for or against approach but said they were happy to comply with whatever the city decided,” Martin said. “One of the suggestions they made was we need to be careful to not prevent them from selling or distributing reusable plastic bags, so we wanted to make sure, of course, that they can give reusable bags to their customers.”

Eric Blom, a spokesman for Hannaford supermarkets, said the chain has seen different variations of bans and ordinances and it tries not to get involved. He said the company has no opinion on whether a plastic bag ban is bad for business.

“We believe it’s a community decision,” Blom said. “It’s really a question of what the community feels the ordinance should be, and we will make it work for our customers.”

Martin said the group did not want to impose a hardship on small businesses and so decided to just go after large retailers, who are also the largest distributors of plastic bags. And he said the group respects the right of residents to decide for themselves on the ordinance.

“This is a democracy,” Martin said. “It’s not fair for the mayor to try and silence the voice of Waterville people on this issue. We could have just asked the council to vote on it and adopt it, but we didn’t do that because we believe everyone in town should have a say on this issue.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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