Others counter that bags are a significant problem here, particularly in streams, where they tend to float and get snagged by shore vegetation. An estimated 60,000 plastic bags were collected over an eight-month period in 2008 at the mouth of the Jones Falls, for instance, though there were more cigarette butts, plastic bottles and foam cups and plates, according to the designer of the trash interceptor device kept there then.

In the Washington area, the number of plastic bags pulled out of the Anacostia River and its tributary streams has declined since the district started charging a nickel for every plastic or paper bag, according to Julie Lawson with the Anacostia Watershed Society.

Montgomery County officials also report fewer plastic bags being handed out since they started charging a nickel fee a year ago, though some council members want to scale back that fee.

In Baltimore, the legislation's sponsors say they intend to trim the proposed fee to 10 cents per sack.

"We don't want the money," said Kraft. "We just want people to not use the bags." He and Scott say they would earmark revenue from the fee for parks and recreation programs, and for controlling stormwater pollution.

Santoni said he fears any bag fee — like the city's bottle tax — will drive some customers to shop in Baltimore County. He said he could live with a fee if it was applied statewide — an idea that hasn't gained traction in Annapolis.

Safeway spokesman Ten Eyck said his company favors a fee, as long as it's on both plastic and paper. The chain's stores in the Washington area have saved money by handing out two-thirds fewer bags since fees were imposed there, he said.

At Eddie's Charles Village, shopper Norman Kellam, 49, said he'd be upset if he had to pay 25 cents for every bag the grocer gave him, but a 10-cent fee might be enough to remind him to bring his own.

"In some respects it will cut down on all the plastic bags that are littering the streets,'' he said. "So it's not a big deal."

The bag fee bill is one of two environmental measures pending in City Council. A bill to ban polystyrene foam drink and food containers nearly came to a vote recently but was sent back to committee for further work after council members expressed reservations.

Some environmentalists argue the city ought to take a more comprehensive approach to reducing litter and trash instead of piecemeal bills. But Kraft countered that cities such as San Francisco have followed a similar path.

"You attack a piece at a time, and when you get finished," he said, "you've been able to get at the whole problem."

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com