State officials said Tuesday that they will delay enforcement of bans on single-use plastic carryout bags and disposable foam food containers that were scheduled to take effect next month.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused changes in consumer demand as well as disruptions in obtaining replacement materials that would make the ban difficult to enforce, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection said.

The ban on disposable polystyrene food containers had been scheduled to take effect Jan. 1 and the ban on single-use plastic bags was to go into effect on Jan. 15. The DEP said it will delay enforcement of the bans until July 1.

Gov. Janet Mills signed the bill to ban single-use plastic bags in June 2019 making Maine, at the time, just one of four states to adopt such a law. The law was initially scheduled to go into effect last April 22, Earth Day, to give businesses time to adjust, but the DEP delayed it.

One of the chief sponsors, Rep. Holly Stover, D-Boothbay, could not be reached for comment Tuesday evening, but in June 2019, Stover told the Press Herald that the bill represented an important step toward protecting the wildlife and landscapes that support Maine’s economy. Stover said the bill would limit plastic bags from entering coastal waters and protect marine life.

Another sponsor, Rep. David McRea of Fort Fairfield, said in a telephone interview Tuesday evening he was not surprised by the delay.

“In this year of the COVID nothing surprises me,” McRea said. “Even if I had vehemently objected to the delay it wouldn’t have amounted to much considering everything else the Legislature is facing.”

McRea said the ban will positively affect the quality of life for future generations.

“As long as it will be enacted in six months, it’s not that big of a deal. I’m very proud of this bill,” McRea said.

Twenty-four Maine cities and towns, including Portland, had enacted ordinances, as of May 2019, banning single-use bags or requiring stores to charge a fee for them to reduce their use. Proponents said retailers want a single statewide law, as businesses that operate in multiple locations now face a confusing array of local ordinances.

McRea said some of the larger stakeholders, such as the Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association, agreed to support the bill. But Christine Cummings, executive director of the association, said in an email Tuesday evening that it makes sense to delay the ban.

“The pandemic has put a significant amount of stress on Maine’s food and grocery industries, and the entire supply chain, including various goods and products such as single-use paper bags and polystyrene alternatives,” Cummings said. “The Maine DEP evaluated the landscape and determined that due to the ongoing challenges to Maine’s businesses, it made sense to delay enforcement of Maine’s ban on single-use plastic bags and polystyrene.”

Dana Connors, president of the Maine Chamber of Commerce, could not be reached for comment Tuesday evening.

The Maine DEP said the delay is due to disruptions in “traditional food marketing and packaging supplies,” including increased demand for curbside pickup and takeout food. Those changes in consumer habits, the DEP said, have resulted in less availability of reusable 4 mil plastic and paper bags, both of which are allowable substitutes for single-use plastic bags under the law. In addition, many retailers have asked customers not to bring in reusable bags from home due to concerns over possible virus transmissions, leading many shoppers to use store-supplied single-use bags, the state said.

As for disposable food containers, the DEP said, COVID-19 safety protocols have increased demand for the products, and schools, homeless shelters and others are providing more food in disposable containers.

The department said consumers and retailers should use the delay to focus on getting alternatives to the banned products.


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