Portsmouth to try and ban plastic bags again?

By Steve MacDonald

Tonight, the Portsmouth, New Hampshire City Council is meeting for the second reading of a proposal to ban plastic bags in the city council chamber, City hall, starting at 7 pm. This is not the Council’s first dance with a proposed bag ban. Back in the spring of 2015 a Blue Ribbon Committee on Sustainable Practices, headed by Bert Cohen, proposed a similar ban that was eventually dropped. The City came to the conclusion that it did not have the authority under state law.

The New Hampshire Legislature recently rejected enabling legislation, but Portsmouth is plowing ahead none the less:

The proposed ordinance states “no store, to include grocery store or pharmacy, shall provide a single-use carryout plastic bag to a customer, at the check stand, cash register, point of sale, or other point of departure for the purpose of transporting food or merchandise out of the establishment except as provided in this ordinance.”

The city is aware of the legal hurdles but City Councilor Brad Lown, a sponsor of the ban, thinks it is in the city’s interest to risk a court challenge:

Lown, who is also a lawyer, plans to tell his fellow city councilors Monday “that in general, it’s a good idea to avoid litigation.” “But there are some situations like this where it’s not necessarily a bad thing,” he said. “It would be simple and inexpensive. One of the city attorneys could do it, and it wouldn’t take long.”

There are plenty of other reasons to dump the proposal, most of which were addressed back in 2015, but other concerns have surfaced since then. Plastic bag bans sacrifice jobs and the local economy on the altar of environmental advantages that don’t exist:

During a one-year period, before and after the ban, the majority of stores surveyed in areas with a ban reported an overall average sales decline of nearly 6%. While the majority of respondents surveyed in areas without a ban reported an overall average sales growth of 9%. The study also sought to determine if consumers changed their shopping behavior by increasing purchases at stores that could still offer plastic bags.

The study also sought to determine if consumers changed their shopping behavior by increasing purchases at stores that could still offer plastic bags.

Pamela Villarreal, NCPA senior fellow, told PlasticsToday it was interesting to find that consumers chose to shop at stores unaffected by the ban. “What we suspect is people that live in an area under a bag ban, but are in close proximity to an area without one, will ‘vote with their feet,’” she said. “We often hear that people oppose plastic bags, but it sure does look like a lot of people do like them.”

Thin film bags are reusable, recyclable, produced domestically, represent a minuscule portion of the waste stream, have a  lower overall impact on the environment, and consumers prefer them.

Portsmouth can choose to ignore the law. If they challenge the state and win, the odds are good that 5-10% of shoppers will take their business outside the city to avoid the ban. Jobs and revenue will go with them.Is there room on that same altar of environmentalism for the City of Portsmouth to sacrifice a commensurate part of its budget?

If the answer is no, then perhaps the City Council should listen to the lawyers, skip the lawsuit, and put the bag ban back in the drawer.