AUGUSTA — The Maine House voted Thursday to ban restaurants, coffee shops and other businesses statewide from using foam food and beverage containers.

If enacted, the bill would make Maine among the first states nationwide to prohibit single-use food and drink containers made from polystyrene. The debate at the State House comes at a time when a growing number of Maine towns – primarily in southern or midcoast regions – are adopting local bans on polystyrene, which is also referred to by the trade name Styrofoam.

The 87-51 vote fell along party lines, with all Democrats and independents except one supporting the measure and all Republican opposed. The bill, L.D. 289, faces additional votes in the House and Senate.

Supporters contend a statewide ban will help improve the environment by reducing the amount of non-biodegradable foam that washes into lakes, rivers and coastal waters as litter. While some polystyrene is recyclable, there are no recycling programs operating in the state.

The Maine House has voted for a statewide ban on polystyrene food containers, which means restaurants, grocery stores and other establishments will have to find alternatives if the Senate and governor also back the measure. Press Herald file photo by John Patriquin

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Stanley Zeigler, D-Montville, said there are multiple alternatives to petroleum-based polystyrene containers that are emerging on the market, some of which – including hemp- or wood-based products – could be grown or made in Maine. Zeigler said the “microplastics” created as polystyrene degrades can have harmful health impacts on fish and shellfish.

“Why would we threaten a huge part of the Maine economy to use a product that is not native to Maine?” Zeigler said. “And lastly, we have a tourist economy. To have polystyrene trash littering our lake and ocean beaches makes absolutely no sense.”

Opponents suggested a statewide ban would merely impose additional burdens on small businesses without addressing the underlying “throw-away culture.”

Organizations such as the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, the Maine Grocers & Food Producers Association and the Maine Tourism Association oppose the bill.

“I believe it is a local control issue,” said Rep. Dick Campbell, R-Orrington, whose district includes the Penobscot Energy Recovery Company facility that incinerates waste to produce electricity. “It is already happening, so the state doesn’t have to ban. But the biggest problem here is our culture.”

Freeport was the first Maine town to pass a local ordinance prohibiting restaurants, beverage sellers and grocery stores from selling or serving food and drinks in polystyrene. The law was on the books in Freeport for more than 20 years before Portland began enforcing its own ban in 2015.

Since then, similar ordinances have been adopted in South Portland, Cape Elizabeth, Rockland, Camden, Belfast, Bar Harbor and several other towns.

Many of those local bans on polystyrene were coupled with prohibitions on stores using disposable plastic shopping bags. And lawmakers are also considering proposals to ban single-use plastic bags throughout Maine.

The bill advanced by the House on Thursday would ban the use of polystyrene containers beginning in January 2021 for restaurants, convenience stores, food trucks, caterers, agricultural fairs, grocery stores and other “covered establishments.”

The bill contains a number of significant exemptions, however.

For instance, hospitals and Meals-on-Wheels providers would still be allowed to use polystyrene, as would lobster dealers and other Maine processors that ship seafood in foam coolers and ice chests. The bill also would not require grocery stores to repackage meat that comes to the store pre-packaged for sale.

There are dozens of polystyrene bans on the books around the country, and the number is growing. For instance, New York City banned single-use foam containers, as of January. And last year, coffee giant Dunkin’ Donuts announced plans to phase out polystyrene cups in all of the chain’s 12,000-plus stores worldwide by 2020.

But to date, there are no statewide bans in effect.

Earlier this week, Maryland lawmakers gave final passage to a bill banning foam food and beverage containers. That would make Maryland the first state to ban polystyrene if the bill is signed by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who has yet to take a position on the issue, according to news reports.

Zeigler’s bill could face a bigger political challenge in the Maine Senate, where Democrats hold a smaller majority than in the House.

The bill would also have to pass muster with Democratic Gov. Janet Mills. However, officials with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection testified in support of a statewide ban during the committee process.

“Several Maine municipalities have already taken the step of banning the sale or use of polystyrene food containers and others are considering it,” Carole Cifrino, supervisor of the DEP’s recycling program, said in written comments to the Environment and Natural Resources Committee. “A statewide ban will create consistency for businesses that operate in multiple municipalities. It can also help educate our many visitors about using alternatives to polystyrene and will support Maine’s image as a pristine vacation destination.”

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