Duck paddling through Inner Harbor debris

Duck swims through foam, bottles and other debris along Fells Point/Canton waterfront. (Christine Gralow, by permission / January 20, 2014)

The bag fee is back, at least in theory. A bill aimed at fighting litter in Baltimore by levying a fee on disposable plastic and paper bags is to get a hearing this week in City Hall.

The City Council's Judiciary and Legislative Investigations committee is scheduled to review the measure at 9:45 a.m. Tuesday. If it's ultimately approved, Baltimore would join the District of Columbia, Montgomery County and about 100 other communities, most of them on the West Coast, in banning or charging fees on disposable bags.

As drafted, the Baltimore bill would require supermarkets, convenience stores and other sales outlets in the city to charge 25 cents for each bag distributed to hold merchandise. But Councilman Brandon Scott, the bill's chief sponsor, said when he introduced it last summer that he would lower the fee to 10 cents. Bags for some purchases would be exempt, such as prescription drugs, food bought at farmer's markets and newspapers.

Scott's bill marks the third time in recent years that Baltimore officials have talked about banning or imposing fees on shopping bags as a way of fighting litter on city streets and reducing the amount of trash that washes into streams and the harbor. While endorsed by environmentalists, the measures face stiff opposition from the plastics industry, some retailers and advocates for the poor.

Similar legislation to levy a 25-cent fee was introduced in the council four years ago, along with a competing bill that would have banned the use of disposable plastic bags altogether. Under pressure from industry and retailers, the council opted to require merchants instead to offer to recycle plastic bags. The measure has been rarely enforced, though, and compliance is spotty. And despite strong environmental support, statewide bag fee legislation has died repeatedly in Annapolis.

Scott's bill doesn't specify where the money raised by the fee would go, but he has said he would like it to go toward funding city parks and recreation programs.

The city Finance Department estimated a 25-cent bag fee would raise $6.5 million in its first full year, but cautioned that its projection is uncertain because there's little precedent for a fee that high. The department suggested instead levying a 5-cent fee, as in the District and Montgomery County, where it argues the nominal charge has succeeded in reducing disposable bag usage.

City Council backed off another litter-fighting measure last year, which would have banned polystyrene foam cups and other food containers. That measure had more cosponsors than the bag fee bill, but support for it wilted under opposition from retailers and a recommendation against a foam ban by the city's sustainability commission. Though many environmentalists supported a ban on foam, by far the most visible litter in the harbor, the sustainability panel argued that the city should take a more holistic approach to fighting litter instead of dealing with one type of litter at a time.

Meanwhile, litter continues to clutter the Inner Harbor. City resident Christine Gralow recently photographed ducks paddling about in a raft of foam, plastic bottles and other debris along the Fells Point/Canton waterfront.

"I can't believe how many people walk and jog by these scenes without blinking an eye," she said by email.