For more than two years, Baltimore city has tried to fight its litter problem with a law barring merchants from giving shoppers plastic bags unless they ask for them.
But even the law's supporters acknowledge it's had little impact.
Of more than 200 food vendors inspected by the Health Department, at least three-fourths have not posted the required signs informing customers of the no-bag-unless-you-ask policy, according to the city's Office of Sustainability.
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Yet only one store — the Safeway supermarket in Canton — has been fined for not complying with the law. And nearly four out of five businesses, including grocery stores, takeout restaurants and convenience stores, keep giving out plastic sacks despite hopes that the law would encourage more to offer only paper bags.
"It was not successful," said Beth Strommen, director of the city's Office of Sustainability.
Amid evidence that the city's "Plastic Bag Reduction" ordinance is widely ignored and rarely enforced, city officials are trying another approach. The City Council is scheduled to hold a public hearing in July on a bill that would levy a 25-cent fee on both plastic and paper disposable bags, with the aim of encouraging shoppers to bring their own sacks for carrying away their food purchases.
"All the stores are violating the law," said Councilman James Kraft, chief sponsor of the plastic-bag reduction law and now a co-sponsor of the fee bill.
Participating food vendors reported handing out about 14 million plastic bags annually, and there's no evidence that bag use declined as a result of the ordinance, said Strommen. She attributed the program's shortcomings to glitches in the law and a lack of funding to promote or enforce it. She believes a fee would be far more effective at reducing throwaway bag use than the current effort.
The bag reduction law was a compromise. Council members anxious to curb litter had proposed either banning plastic bags or levying a 25-cent fee on each. But bag manufacturers and some merchants argued those approaches would hurt their business and successfully pressed city officials to encourage recycling instead.
"We always knew the ordinance was just a stopgap," said Robert Santoni Jr., chief financial officer of Santoni's supermarket and a leading proponent of the bag-recycling effort. "It was just a way to pacify them and us, because it was just silly. I called it the hot-potato bill."
Strommen said she believed many sit-down restaurants and some retail chains dropped plastic in favor of paper bags to avoid the ordinance's requirements for posting signs to encourage recycling and for reporting to the city the number of bags used. About 2,300 vendors have registered to keep handing out plastic shopping bags while promoting recycling, less than half of more than 6,000 licensed food vendors in the city.
But there's been little oversight. Strommen said she has telephoned and written to merchants in response to a smattering of consumer complaints. City health inspectors have checked only 216 food vendors for compliance, and officials have stopped tracking plastic bag use, which under the law is to be reported every six months.
"People just got tired of it," Strommen said of the reporting requirement, "based on the fact they had other priorities." She noted that "this was an unfunded mandate," with no staff or money budgeted to carry it out.
Some merchants insist they obey the bag reduction law, at least in spirit. Santoni, who said he follows the law, estimated that he's sold more than 3,000 reusable shopping bags a year. He also has placed a recycling bin for plastic bags in his store, and customers fill it four times a week, he said.
Jerry Gordon, owner of Eddie's Market in Charles Village, said many of his customers bring their own bags or recycle plastic sacks.
Following the law is impractical, said Greg Ten Eyck, spokesman for Safeway, which paid a $250 fine last year for not posting signs at its Canton store. Merchants are not supposed to provide a plastic bag unless asked, he said, but cashiers in busy stores can't afford to wait for customers either to produce their own reusable bags or ask for disposable ones.
Supporters of bag fees say the nickel levy imposed in the District of Columbia three years ago has had a major impact on litter there.
"To look at what they have and what we have in the harbor — or in my district, along Herring Run — all you can see is plastic bags everywhere in the water, in the trees," said Baltimore Councilman Brandon Scott, the chief sponsor of the latest bag fee proposal here.
So litter-strewn is Baltimore's harbor that the Environmental Protection Agency five years ago declared it "impaired" by trash. The federal agency ordered the city and Baltimore County to devise a plan for keeping debris out of the harbor.
Bag industry representatives contend that bans and fees won't do much for litter. They point to a recent report by Environmental Resources Planning, a Gaithersburg consultant, which found plastic bags make up less than 1 percent of litter surveyed in a variety of cities across North America.
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."