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Portsmouth pushing for plastic bag ban

New Hampshire Union Leader

April 18. 2015 9:44PM

PORTSMOUTH - The Portsmouth City Council is considering a ban on plastic bags, with some observers concerned that - if approved - it could lead to calls for similar ordinances across the state.

Portsmouth City Councilor Brad Lown is sponsoring the ordinance on behalf of the New Hampshire Surfrider Foundation's Rise Above Plastics campaign. The ordinance is aimed at "protecting the public health, safety, welfare and environment," according to its wording.

"Plastic pollution represents a great danger here on the Seacoast," said Rise Above Plastics committee member Kevin Lucey in a release. "Plastic bags are not biodegradable, and plastic pollution in the ocean is not just a faraway problem. There are recent examples of sea animals dying from plastic bags and we believe that is unacceptable."

Formed in 1984, the Surfrider Foundation is a nonprofit, nationwide organization aimed at protecting the world's oceans and beaches, The New Hampshire chapter was formed in 2007.

Two-prong approach

The ordinance would ban single-use plastic bags in the city and allow stores to pass on a 10-cent per bag fee for using paper bags instead, and encourages residents to use reusable carry-out bags.

First-time offenders would receive a written warning from the city's Public Works director, with additional offenses receiving a citation of up to $100 per violation.

"My office and city council members have received many calls and emails on this, and I'd say the majority of people I hear from are in favor of it," said Portsmouth Mayor Robert Lister. "We really need more time to look at it. People want the plastic bags for trash and to pick up dog poop, but they want to protect the beaches, so you want to make sure there's a balance here. I have a son in California, where they have a statewide ban on bags, but they had a year to prepare for it. I'm just not sure we have the ability to do something like this without enabling legislation."

Portsmouth city attorney Robert Sullivan has been looking into the ban's legality.

"I'm still trying to determine if we can do this," Sullivan said last week. "It's unclear if enabling legislation exists, and I'm waiting to hear back on this before bringing it to the council."

Lister said he would like to see the matter go before the council "within a month and a half."

Mark Brighton of Portsmouth opposes the ban. He has collected more than 500 signatures on a petition calling on the City Council to reject the ordinance.

"If I can't stop this with that many signatures, nothing will," said Brighton, who collected signatures from shoppers outside a grocery store. "It's a freedom of choice issue. People don't want to be told by the government, even local government, what to do."

Brighton believes that if the ordinance is passed in Portsmouth, other communities will draw up similar bans.

"I know Portsmouth is the Cambridge of New Hampshire, but I can see this catching on in places like Concord," said Brighton.

"Right now, this is very localized, but if it were to become more of a statewide effort, we would oppose it," said Nancy Kyle, president and CEO of the New Hampshire Retail Association. "I'd rather see it done by choice by the retailer, than someone step in and tell them what kind of bags they can provide for customers at their place of business."

Rep. John Hunt, R-Cheshire County Dist. 7, who chairs the House Committee on Commerce and Consumer Affairs, doesn't think a plastic bag ban would have much support in Concord.

"We have addressed this issue at the state level through the BeautifulNH program, that provides the blue bags to pick up all the garbage on the side of the roads," wrote Hunt in an email. "Instead of having a bottle bill which the State highway department picks up the bags for free. The program is funded by the beverage distributors. My wife and I use reusable bags, but we always ask to have meat put into a plastic bag because the grocers' meat wrappings do leak and would ruin our reusable bags."

In the beginning

In 1933, polyethylene was discovered by scientists at a British company called Imperial Chemical Industries. In 1965, Sten Thulin's invention of the T-shirt bag, another name for the common single-use plastic shopping bag, is patented by the Swedish company Celloplast.

In 1976, Mobil Oil introduced the plastic bag to the United States, designed in red, white, and blue to celebrate the country's bicentennial. Safeway and Kroger, two of the biggest U.S. grocery chains in 1982, kicked off a planned switch from paper to plastic bags at their stores.

By the end of 1985, 75 percent of supermarkets were offering plastic bags to their customers. Customers still preferred paper bags; plastic held just 25 percent of the market. Over the next decade, plastic bags held 80 percent of the market.

Dave Dziok, from the public relations firm the Edelman Group, said bag regulation is unpopular and interferes with consumer choice.

"A recent Reason-Rupe poll showed that 60 percent of Americans say they would oppose a ban on plastic bags where they live," wrote Dziok in an email. "A study by the National Center for Policy Analysis found bans on plastic bags negatively impact employment and retail sales inside the ban area by shifting business just outside the bag ban region."

The signing of a statewide plastic bag ban for California on September 30, 2014, brought the number of Americans affected by anti-bag legislation to 49 million. California became the first state to ban plastic bags; San Francisco was the first U.S. city to ban them in 2007. Other cities with bans include Chicago, Austin, Seattle, and Portland, Ore. In Washington, D.C. a 5-cent fee per bag has been in effect at stores since 2010.

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