The City Council defeated a proposal Monday to impose a 10-cent fee on most paper and plastic bags distributed in Baltimore, rejecting arguments that such surcharges are a proven method to reduce litter.
Opponents weren't convinced that charging a fee for bags from groceries and major retailers, such as Target and Walmart, would cause fewer to end up as trash in the Inner Harbor and Chesapeake Bay. They also said the fee would disproportionately affect the poor and hurt Baltimore-based small businesses.
The bag fee would have generated an estimated $1.5 million in the first year, although the bill's supporters said the objective was to change behavior, not raise money for the cash-strapped city.
Six council members supported the bag fee. Nine were against it.
"Sooner or later, we have to say when enough is enough," said Councilman Robert Curran of Northeast Baltimore, who voted against the fee.
The city has considered several proposals intended to curb the use of disposable bags over the last decade. About 100 communities nationwide have imposed laws to regulate the use of the sacks. Washington, D.C., and Montgomery County require that retailers charge customers 5 cents for each disposable bag, whether paper or plastic, that they use.
"It's unfortunate, because this is something we know will work and have minimum affect on citizens," said Councilman Brandon M. Scott, the bill's lead sponsor. Scott, also of Northeast Baltimore, pointed to a recent study in Washington that found 80 percent of residents are using fewer disposable bags and that a majority of residents and businesses support the law.
In Baltimore, a coalition of environmental groups, including Trash Free Maryland and Blue Water Baltimore, canvassed door to door and launched a social media campaign in recent days to drum up support for the legislation. Their efforts were followed by an ad campaign against the fee on local radio stations, including 92Q and WBAL-AM. The ads were paid for by a group calling itself the American Progressive Bag Alliance, which represents plastic bag manufacturers.
The one-minute spot urged listeners to call their council members and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who had said she would sign the bill if it reached her desk. It panned the proposal for pressuring residents to carry reusable bags, saying "you know how much they cost."
Rosalind Ellis, who lives downtown, was at Monday's City Council meeting to protest the fee. She said she takes reusable bags to shop, but believes the city shouldn't force a fee on residents who choose to accept paper or plastic.
"It's the idea of not letting the people decide for themselves," Ellis said.
Halle Van der Gaag, director of Blue Water Baltimore, said she was disappointed by the vote. Imposing the fee would have been a proactive way to reduce trash, which she said would save millions of dollars by avoiding the cost of fishing them out of the harbor and streams.
"Citizens here really want to see this happen, and we think it's an important part of cleaning up Baltimore," Van der Gaag said. "There is no reason we can't do this here."
Councilman Bill Henry, who represents north central Baltimore, predicted that state lawmakers in Annapolis will eventually take action against the bags.
"It we don't do it here, we are leaving it up to the General Assembly," he said.
The bill's backers tried to buy time Monday to build support by sending the bill back to committee, but that effort also was defeated.
Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton of Northwest Baltimore said she opposed the bill because she wants the city and region to develop a comprehensive approach to litter control.
"There needs to be a very strong education plan and marketing plan to show that the city is sincere about being a part of helping the environment," she said.
Van der Gaag, Scott and other advocates pledged to redouble their efforts to make people aware of the benefit they feel the bags have had elsewhere.
"We think there is a lot of need for education to let people know how successful this is in D.C.," Van der Gaag said. "Small businesses said it saved them money and storage space."
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