A proposed plastic bag ban ordinance in Bethel brought out a large crowd for last week’s selectmen’s meeting. Seated in the background are selectmen (from left) Andy Whitney, Lloyd Sweetser, Lori Swain, Don Bennett and Peter Southam, Town Manager Loretta Powers and Town Clerk Christen Mason.

BETHEL — About 80 people turned out to a Bethel selectmen’s meeting last week for discussion on a proposed ordinance that would ban single-use carry-out plastic bags in town businesses.

A single-use carry-out plastic bag is defined as one “provided at the checkout stand, cash register, point of sale, or other point of departure for purposes of transporting all food and all non-food related merchandise out of the store.” It does not include reusable, compostable, biodegradable, reused plastic or produce or product bags.
A proposed ordinance would have to be approved at a Town Meeting.
It was brought to the town by Sarah Southam of Bethel and Gould Academy student Maddie Williams of Mason.
Southam said plastic bags never go away, and may break down into microfibers that can get into waterways, including the Androscoggin River and the ocean, and harm the ecosystem.
She said an example of the volume of bags locally would be if 250 people a day take four plastic bags from the Bethel Hannaford store, it would total 7,000 a week.
The town’s Ordinance Review Committee had reviewed the proposal with input from interested citizens, but in December split its vote on a recommendation 2-2 and, therefore, sent it back to selectmen to decide whether to place it on the warrant for the June Town Meeting.
Many who attended Monday supported the ordinance, but one provision was a key sticking point for some business people who attended.
It included a requirement that stores only sell or provide a single use paper carryout bag at a mandatory minimum fee of five cents, with the amount of sale on the bag separately itemized on the sale receipt and records kept of all bags sold.
Ellen and Rick Whitney of Maine Line Products expressed their concerns.
Ellen Whitney objected to having to keep records on and inventory paper bags. “It’s putting a lot more work on us,” she said, adding that she would consider giving out paper bags or use recycled ones.
Rick Whitney said that proposing an ordinance “splits the town,” and a better alternative would be for the community to work together on the problem less formally.
Allen Connors, managing partner at the Bethel Inn, said that “to force an issue down businesses’ throats leaves a bad taste,” and that education would be a better approach.
Debbie Swan of the Bethel Hannaford store expressed concern that elderly residents would have difficulty carrying paper bags, and might not be willing or able to purchase the reusable ones that are available for sale.
Some attendees said getting away from one-use plastic bags is a matter of forming a good habit.  One resident who said he grew up in Switzerland in the 1960s remembered automatically bringing a cloth bag for shopping items.  “It’s a question of conditioning,” he said.
Wally Ritz of Bethel agreed. Noting that she grew up in Germany during the same era, she also described bringing bags for shopping. “It’s a learned thing,” she said.
Others said that an ordinance would give people who have said they want to use reusable bags the final push to do so.
A new resident of Bethel spoke of the effect of bags on the ocean. She said she had come from Cape Cod, where she had been a fisherman and seen many plastic bags. “It’s affecting fishermen’s livelihood,” she said.
During the 90-minute discussion in which some attendees cited information about the environmental and economic impact of bags, both plastic and paper, people on both sides of the issue cautioned each other about accepting what might be unreliable sources of information as fact, urging that they research them carefully.
Selectman Lori Swain, whose family owns a farm in Bethel, said that for years area residents have collected plastic grocery bags and brought them to her to use for her produce sales. She said that while she felt there is a need for a plastic bag ordinance, “I think it needs a little more work.”
The vote was 3-2 to send the ordinance back to the ORC for further work. Voting in favor were Swain, Don Bennett and Lloyd Sweetser. Opposed were Andy Whitney and Peter Southam (Sarah Southam’s husband).
Whitney said that leading up to the board meeting he had had discussions with business people who brainstormed ideas for cutting back on plastic bag use. He told Southam and Williams that regardless of the outcome of the ordinance effort, “you’ve already made a difference.”