A renewed effort is underway in Baltimore to impose a fee on most plastic bags handed out in city stores — and supporters believe that charging a nickel for each bag, rather than a dime, will allow the measure to gain enough backing to become law.
But some local retailers have joined environmentalists in saying that the city needs to put the charge on both paper and plastic bags.
Environmentalists want to encourage city shoppers to carry reusable bags to preserve resources and reduce litter. "Plastic is by far a bigger problem, but what we're really looking for is a behavior change," said Julie Lawson, director and co-founder of the Trash Free Maryland Alliance.
Retailers, meanwhile, say a fee on only plastic bags would just cause shoppers to switch to paper — which costs merchants more than twice as much to provide.
"That would increase the cost of doing business," said Gregory A. Ten Eyck, a spokesman for Safeway. He said the grocery chain would not fight the legislation so long as it is changed to apply to paper bags as well.
A similar measure died in the City Council in January, the latest effort in a decade-long anti-litter campaign that would have added a 10-cent charge to almost every paper or plastic bag distributed in city stores.
This time, the proposal is being sponsored by two veteran City Council members, James B. Kraft and Bill Henry, who said they believed they'd reached the right fee in proposing a new bag tax.
"This is a bill that has been back and forth for the last 10 years," Kraft said, saying he believes a 5-cent fee can win support. He said discussions are underway about possible changes to the measure.
"We are now looking at how to restructure the bill based upon some suggestions from industry and other members of the council," Kraft said Thursday.
A hearing on the legislation originally scheduled for Tuesday was postponed on Friday. A new date has not yet been scheduled, said Kristyn Oldendorf, Kraft's chief of staff.
Kraft and Henry's bill is a resurrection of a measure proposed by Councilman Brandon M. Scott that died on the council floor. Scott said he believed his bill could have been altered, but he's backing the new proposal.
"This is the right thing to do," he said.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she supports the council's evaluation of the effect of the proposal, and if the legislation makes it to her desk, she'll sign it.
Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young does not support the bill. He sees the fee as a regressive tax that would hurt low-income families, said his spokesman, Lester Davis. Young also has said anti-litter campaigns that target certain items don't get at the root problem of changing behaviors.
Lawson said she thinks with the right amount of grass-roots lobbying, the City Council can approve a bag fee and Baltimore can see as much success with the reduction of litter as Washington has.
Since a 5-cent fee was added in 2010 to paper and plastic bags handed out in the District of Columbia, 67 percent of residents reported seeing fewer bags littering the area, according to a recent survey there. Eighty percent of residents said they changed their behavior, and the vast majority of businesses and people reported positive feelings about the law.
Tommy Wells, a D.C. councilman who sponsored the successful bag fee legislation there, said to foster support, he met with grocers and retailers to talk about their concerns, senior citizens about ridding the district of trash, and clergy about stewardship of the environment. From that outreach, Wells said, he built a powerful coalition of backers.
Another selling point for Washingtonians was using the money collected toward environmental cleanup, and to that point, Wells said he named his legislation the Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Act. He earmarked the money raised — about $2 million a year — toward the watershed's restoration.
"The idea was not get into your wallet but into your head about whether you need a bag or not," Wells said. "The opponents try to use recycling as a way to defeat the bill; recycling is harm mitigation. The best way to clean up the environment is reduce the trash and the waste to begin with."
Wells offered advice to the Baltimore City Council: "Ten cents is too much. A nickel is the right amount, and you've got to include paper."
Profit margins for grocery stores are so narrow that a key to gaining the support of supermarket chains is to make sure the legislation doesn't increase their costs, Wells said.
Plastic bags cost about 2 cents apiece for stores to provide, Wells said. Paper bags cost 5 cents.
Both the Washington law and the Baltimore proposal allow merchants to keep a portion of the money collected for administrative costs.
Some supporters of the city legislation want to see the money the bag fee would raise be used to enhance Baltimore's green efforts. Kraft has also introduced pending legislation that would create a special fund for park restoration and sustainability projects.
Jamie Miller, a spokesman for Giant, said the supermarket chain hasn't taken a position on the current proposal.
"We're still reviewing it to determine what impact it would have on a customers and business," Miller said. He added that Giant stores in the Washington area have done well implementing the fees.
Lee Califf, director of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, a plastics industry group that opposes campaigns targeting plastic bags, said the bill in Baltimore is bad policy.
"In this tough economy where food prices continue to rise, the government should not be adding what is essentially a regressive tax," Califf said in a statement. "The proposed bag tax will be a burden on already overtaxed, hardworking Baltimore families and businesses, and risk putting hundreds in Maryland who rely on the industry for employment out of work."
Califf said the city should look toward a robust recycling program instead.
"If lawmakers are interested in protecting the environment, they should consider the facts and not force 'feel good' legislation that does more harm than good," he said.
While many customers say they wouldn't mind paying an extra five cents for disposable bags, Phoenix Yu of Owings Mills said she'd just quit shopping in Baltimore.
"That's a bad idea," said Yu, who stopped at the Giant on 41st Street in North Baltimore on a recent day to pick up a few items. Customers can't control the number of plastic sacks the cashier or bagger uses to pack their groceries unless customers do it themselves, Yu said.
Betty Reynolds of the city's Medfield neighborhood said she makes a habit of bringing reusable bags to the grocery store, and she wishes more people would do the same. "And we won't have these things floating all over the place," she said, pointing to the plastic bags that held her groceries on a day she forgot her own sacks.
Lawson, of the Trash Free Maryland Alliance, said environmentalists are working to recruit supporters of the legislation by building on cleanup efforts being done in Baltimore, including weekly recycling pickup, trash bins on sidewalks, newly expanded street sweeping and a pilot program to provide huge plastic trash cans on wheels with attached lids.
"Plastic is chemically designed to last for centuries, and its intended use is only for a few minutes, even if you reuse them," Lawson said. "Very few end up being recycled."
What's more, Lawson said, the public is already paying a cost for the bags, which is embedded in the price of groceries and in tax dollars dedicated toward litter reduction and environmental cleanup.
"Once that cost is made more transparent to people, they realize it's time to make a different choice," she said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.
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