AUGUSTA — The city might join a growing number of other municipalities in Maine in banning plastic bags.

A plastic shopping bag blows in the wind Friday at the Hatch Hill Solid Waste Facility in Augusta. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

Augusta officials will discuss banning the use of plastic shopping bags as a way to reduce waste going into the city’s landfill and — illegally — into its recycling bins.

City councilors are expected to take up a proposal at their Jan. 10 meeting from Ward 1 Councilor Linda Conti to ban plastic shopping bags in Augusta.

Conti said the specifics of such a ban would be up for discussion and negotiation with other councilors, but she wants measures in place to reduce the number that are thrown away, largely because they are not recyclable.

“I just want to sort of explore all the options and see what we could reach consensus on that we might be able to actually move forward,” she said of the proposal Friday. “So it’s going to be a pretty free-ranging, wide-open discussion.”

Waterville residents voted in November 2018 on a proposal to ban plastic bags that initially passed by 146 votes but that a controversial recount later determined to have been rejected by seven votes after a group of Waterville voters challenged 164 ballots, most of which were from Colby College students. A challenge to that result is pending before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

In June 2018, Manchester residents voted to ban plastic bags from retail stores.

Other Maine communities with plastic bag bans in place include Bath, Brunswick and Topsham.

A plastic shopping bag blows in the wind Friday at the Hatch Hill Solid Waste Facility in Augusta. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

Some communities, including Manchester, have banned them from retail stores; while others have banned them from stores larger than a certain size.

Conti’s proposal came up in Augusta during discussion about problems with the city’s single-sort recycling program. Among the problems that have arisen are nonrecyclable items — including plastic bags — being placed in the four bins intended for residents’ recyclable material, nonresidents using them, and items being left on the ground outside of the containers when they were full.

Augusta Public Works Director Lesley Jones suggested that as recycling becomes more challenging because of changes in the market for recyclable materials, a better approach to reducing waste going to the landfill would be for people to reduce how much waste they create in the first place.

During discussion of Augusta’s recycling program at Thursday’s council meeting, Conti said a plastic bag ban could help reduce waste and also help prevent the bags from ending up in city recycling containers.

“Recycling has become problematic because there is no market for recyclables,” she said. “Stopping waste from becoming waste may be a way to address some of these issues, so we’re going to discuss it and see what people think of it.”

A plastic shopping bag blows in the wind Friday at the Hatch Hill Solid Waste Facility in Augusta. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

In December 2018, Augusta city councilors voted to remove the recycling collection bins available to residents at two of the four locations in Augusta. The two spots, where the bins are scheduled to be removed Feb. 4, are the parking lots outside Augusta City Center and the police station. Those were the only ones available around the clock, every day of the week. They were, however, also largely unmonitored, and presented the most problems with contamination and other misuse. The remaining two locations — at the Hatch Hill landfill and the John Charest Public Works Facility off North Street — are monitored by the city staff and will remain available for use by residents, but they are accessible only when those facilities are open.

Resident Charlotte Ellis told councilors Thursday she was disappointed that the city chose to eliminate the City Center and police station collection bins. She said the city needs to do more to spread the word to residents about what is recyclable and what isn’t.

She noted that when the city’s single-sort recycling program first started in a partnership with ecomaine, which has a recyclables processing plant in Portland, disposable plastic bags were considered an acceptable item in the recycling collection bins. Residents were asked later to stop putting plastic bags into the recycling bins, because they were clogging up sorting machines at ecomaine.

Ellis said now there is only a tiny sign on a board by the bins that states plastic bags should not be put into them.

“I don’t feel there has been enough communication to the residents of Augusta about recycling,” she said.

Ellis suggested asking volunteers to help monitor the bins and educate residents at the locations about what is and isn’t accepted. She volunteered to “take a shift” to help out with that.

Mayor David Rollins said Thursday the city has worked hard to get the word out about recycling, but it could do more to let residents know about changes. He said plastic bags were just one type of nonrecyclable item being put in the two unmonitored recycling bins; other items being tossed into the containers have included household trash and diapers.

A related proposal to make it a $500 fine for nonresidents to put any items into the recycling bins meant for Augusta residents moved forward with a first reading — of two required for passage — at Thursday’s council meeting, and could be approved by councilors at their next business meeting.

At-large Councilor Corey Wilson, the sponsor of that proposal, said it should not be taken as an indication the city wants to get rid of recycling.

“This is purely intended to be a deterrent for those who’ve sought to abuse what we’ve been able to offer, period,” Wilson said.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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