Paper or Plastic: The Death of Choice, Overreach of Government in Belfast

ON Tuesday, August 15 in Belfast, Maine I stood in the hallway of the overpacked city council chambers; listening above the loud whispers of the elderly attendees, as the city council conducted their meeting. The council moved swiftly through its typical business until it reached the focal point of the evening: the Styrofoam and plastic bag ban.

Mayor Walter Ash opened the floor for public comment. Instead of the typical silence following the announcement, several people wearing green and yellow stickers, icons of the “ban the bag” group out in force this night, got up to speak.

Proponents of these ordinances cited a myriad of environmental reasons as the primary need for a ban of plastic bags and Styrofoam in Belfast: the appearance of common areas, disruption to infrastructure, and micro-plastics harming local wildlife.

Only one elderly shopkeeper spoke as an opponent of the ordinances during my time there. He made refreshing statements about the role of the city council; to manage the city’s finite resources and not to posture as global, green, superheroes. He even drew a humorous comparison between the city council’s proposed bans and a 1954 City council ban “preventing the takeoff or landing of UFO’s in and around Belfast”. Quipping that both would be equally effective.

After reading the ordinances and attending the meeting on behalf of everyone else who had anything remotely better to do, here are my thoughts:

These two ordinances are destined to fail in their goal to protect the environment due to one simple fact of life: you cannot legislate away human nature.

A plastic bag and Styrofoam ban will not prevent the littering on our streets or in our harbor. The litterbugs who already irresponsibly discard their trash wherever they please will continue to do so regardless of whether it’s a plastic bag, a paper bag, or any other substitute.

Yes, paper bags are biodegradable. However, microplastics will still find their way into the harbors and drainage systems of the city of Belfast via clothing, bottles and basically all other modern amenities. The hope of positive environmental impact of this policy will be further kneecapped by factors such as increased strain on local forests to produce more paper bags, as well subsequent increases in milling, refining, and shipping. Thus, making the idea of banning plastic bags and Styrofoam both moot and disruptive.

What is not being considered enough, are the negative economic implications the ban will impose on all members of the community. A ban on plastic bags and Styrofoam containers will foremost be a strain on local businesses. Paper bags are larger, more expensive and less durable. During the elderly shopkeeper’s comments, he held up a plastic bag and a paper bag. He proclaimed to the audience that paper bags were 2X more expensive than a regular plastic bag. Ouch. Also, a ban on Styrofoam will seemingly eliminate the popular Dunkin Donuts cups, Circle-K Polar Pops, as well as takeout containers around the city. Whatever the final price increase of switching to paper alternatives may be, it is a guarantee that the extra hassle and cost to businesses will be passed on to you and I, the consumer, in our shopping bills around Belfast. Is it really worth the expense for a possible marginal impact on the environment?

In a broader thought, propositions like these send the wrong kind of messages about our community. What business will look to invest in Belfast if it has to worry about dealing with ridiculous regulations such as these? Belfast should look to court businesses more, not less, to encourage growth in our community which has already seen two large businesses, Pizza Hut and Wendy’s, leave in recent years. These kinds of ordinances create a business adverse stigma about our community and discourage entrepreneurs and businesses from investing in Belfast.

For a take-away, consider this: It is no business of the government to meddle in a mutual transaction between myself and a store. If a store agrees to sell me a bag, and I agree to buy it, it is not the place of the government to limit my freedom of choice; simply because a few less responsible citizens might litter. Many people I’ve spoken to have said “who cares” in regard to losing the option for Styrofoam and plastic bags. I can see their point, it is a small and ridiculous issue compared to some we are faced with today. However, it is concession after concession on small issues like these that lead to the greatest increases in governmental power.  Today its bags, tomorrow it’s a slightly bigger issue. Eventually, the government will pry  into something you actually care about.

I hope the citizens of Belfast think carefully about this proposition and all the residual effects that come with it. For after all, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.


Link to the City Manager’s draft ordinances