A man rides his shopping cart full of items in plastic bags Thursday evening through the parking lot of Walmart in Auburn. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

With a week to go before Maine retailers are banned from giving out disposable plastic bags, stores are contemplating a variety of responses, from offering paper bags or reusable bags to — in Walmart’s case — no bags at all.

Maine’s law will take effect July 1, mandating retailers no longer offer customers disposable plastic bags. Signed by Gov. Mills on June 17, 2019, the law is taking effect after two previous delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It stipulates retailers may offer recyclable paper bags or reusable plastic ones as long as they charge at least 5 cents per bag.

Retailers affected by the law, according to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, include stores, restaurants, and temporary businesses, “such as a farmers’ market or fair where merchandise including food, goods, products, or clothing is sold.”

Exempt are hunger relief organizations, such as food pantries and soup kitchens that “distribute food directly to the consumer at no charge.”

Some businesses are still allowed to use plastic bags in certain cases, including for prescription medicine, laundry and dry cleaning, and to transport live animals, such as fish.

In addition, retailers will be allowed to carry single-use plastic bags, for bagging produce for instance, as long as the bags are not offered at the point of sale and the business provides a receptacle inside or within 20 feet of a main entrance that collects used single-use plastic bags.

An employee of Shaw’s supermarkets, who declined to give their name, said the grocery store will offer customers biodegradable plastic bags for 5 cents each. They will not be carrying paper bags.

Ericka Dodge, external communications manager at Hannaford, said the grocery chain will have paper bags for 5 cents. The company will also sell reusable bags, varying in price from 99 cents to $4 or $5, according to one employee.

Dodge said the store, “encourages our Maine customers to bring their own clean reusable bags from home as we all work together to reduce our carbon footprint.”

Under the law, reusable bags offered by retailers must be designed to withstand a minimum of 75 repeated uses, be machine washable or made from a material that can be cleaned regularly, at least four mils thick if made of plastic, and have the capability of carrying a minimum of 18 pounds.

Sarah Nichols with the Natural Resources Council of Maine said the organization worked closely with groups to help make the law understandable.

A woman carries her items Thursday evening out of Walmart in Auburn. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“This new law was the result of a collaboration between the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the Retail Association of Maine, and Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association to avoid confusion and provide businesses with a consistent, statewide approach for reducing plastic pollution from single-use plastic shopping bags,” she said.

Nichols voiced her enthusiasm for reusable bags. “Reusable bags are a safe and convenient option for shopping and many Mainers have found it helpful to leave a few in their car or entryway so they don’t forget them.”

It may be especially important for some Mainers to keep reusable bags close by, as Walmart has announced that all Maine stores will be bagless starting July 1, in accordance with the state ban, although reusable bags will be available for purchase.

Charles Crowson, Walmart’s communications director for the northern U.S., said the decision mirrors a policy in Vermont.

“A similar initiative began in Vermont four months ago and was well received by customers there,” he said.

An almost identical plastic bag ban was passed in Vermont last year, the only main difference being bags cost a minimum of 10 cents at checkout rather than 5.

Walmart stores in Vermont first provided paper bags, but quickly switched to being bagless after store officials say 78% of their Vermont customers supported the initiative. Shoppers there can purchase reusable bags starting at 50 cents each, according to an employee.

Another law going into effect on July 1 prohibits restaurants, stores and many other eating establishments from using polystyrene foam disposable food containers. The law was signed by Gov. Janet Mills on June 15, 2020.

According to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, the law exempts raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs from the ban until July 1, 2025. As of that date, all food and beverage products sold in Maine, “whether packed out of state or not, cannot be packaged in polystyrene foam.”

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