City officials on Feb. 21 moved one step closer to enacting an ordinance that would discourage the use of single-use plastic bags at some of the largest stores in town.

Last November, a group of concerned citizens approached councilors about implementing such a ban in an effort to limit plastic's impact on the environment. Several communities in Southern Maine have passed such bans and the city's proposal would largely mirror those ordinances.

The city's ordinance targets stores that are 10,000 square feet in size or larger, with gross food sales of 2 percent or more. That means three stores, Hannaford, Renys and Ocean State Job Lots, would be subject to the yet-to-be enacted ordinance. The ordinance would not apply to thinner, smaller plastic bags used to wrap meat and vegetables.

As drafted, the ordinance would not assess any fines against businesses that continue to offer single-use plastic bags; however, those businesses would receive a written warning and fines could be levied at a future date.

Councilors agreed with waiting to see if a fine would be necessary. While some city officials questioned whether the ordinance — without a penalty — becomes more a set of guidelines, as opposed to a policy, city officials ultimately agreed to see how things play out before adding any “teeth” to the policy. If compliance becomes an issue in the future, officials can amend the ordinance to include monetary penalties.

Taking a wait-and-see approach seemed to be the general consensus among councilors who also pointed out that many of the businesses that will be impacted by the ordinance are offering a wider selection of reusable bags, or are offering incentives encouraging plastic bag alternatives.

The ordinance will allow stores to sell customers a plastic bag for a nominal fee. Councilors agreed a 5-cent-per-bag fee was acceptable, with Councilor Neal Harkness likening the bag fee to a bottle deposit. If a customer does not have a reusable bag or does not want to pay for plastic bags, stores can still offer paper bags for free.

Also, customers are not prohibited from using any type of bag they bring into a store.

“The idea is we want to use less plastic bags. I hope we can just start moving this thing,” Hurley said. "It's such a minor thing we're doing here. It's almost worth not doing but I'm glad we're doing it. I'd feel better if it was every store, honestly.”

While councilors were largely in favor of moving forward with the ordinance, Mayor Walter Ash challenged the fairness of a policy that effectively singles out just a few stores. Harkness argued ordinances like a plastic bag ban are designed to modify behavior and there is an expectation that people will adjust and learn to bring a reusable bag or use paper bags. Councilors also noted the three stores impacted by the ordinance distribute the most plastic bags.

Before wrapping up discussion, Slocum said he would be reaching out to the three businesses about the ordinance.

A public hearing to discuss the ordinance is planned for March 21.