Baltimore is in many respects a charming city, with its row houses, historic neighborhoods and miles of waterfront.

But our city also has a not-so-charming problem with trash. And a major contributor is the plastic bags that pollute the landscape. Take a look around and you'll spot blue, white and beige plastic bags clinging to trees, balled up in the alley or caught in hedges.

They are an eyesore and annoyance. But they are also a major environmental and quality-of-life issue. They clog storm drains, contributing to flooding. They end up in streams and the harbor — in countless numbers — spoiling the habitat, endangering wildlife and ruining the vista. And they deliver the unmistakable message that Baltimore has a trash problem.

Passionate advocates and volunteers have been trying for years to find a solution to the plastic-bag problem. Now, there's a common sense proposal in the Baltimore City Council. Sponsored by Councilman James Kraft and several others, a bill introduced late last month would impose a modest 5-cent fee on every plastic bag handed out by groceries, convenience stores and many other retailers. The proposal cuts in half an earlier, unsuccessful effort this winter to charge a 10-cent fee for every paper and plastic bag and applies only to plastic.

The fee would serve as an incentive for retailers and shoppers alike to switch to reusable bags, which are more economical and better for our environment. Some retailers have already taken steps to encourage this by offering a discount for shoppers who bring in reusable bags — an important step.

This new bag fee would apply to a large majority of retail transactions and would significantly reduce the number of new, and frequently unnecessary, plastic bags handed out across the city. That would cut down on litter and scale back our consumption of non-renewable resources, including petroleum. Overall, Americans use about 100 billion plastic bags a year, which requires 12 million barrels of oil to manufacture. Think about it — why are we burning fossil fuels to produce disposable bags that end up in our streams?

On average, we use a plastic bag for 12 minutes, but the bag lasts forever. In 2012, Americans discarded 3.8 million tons of plastic bags and plastic wrap. That's enough to fill 300,000 garbage trucks.

Finally, more than a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals die each year after eating pieces of plastic or becoming entangled in plastic netting.

This problem has a solution, and the bag fee is far from an untested idea.

Nearly 500 municipalities, as well as 19 countries, have either banned the bags or imposed a fee on their use, according to the Surfrider Foundation. By next year, Hawaii will have banned plastic bags statewide.

Nearby, Washington, D.C., in 2010 imposed a fee of a nickel on each plastic and paper bag used by businesses that sell food or alcohol. Since then, plastic bag usage has been reduced by more than 50 percent.

Among District residents, 80 percent say they have reduced their use of disposable bags and 83 percent say they have a positive or neutral view of the fee. Among businesses, 69 percent said the bag fee has had either a positive or neutral impact.

Proceeds from the Washington bag fee go in part to the Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Fund, which has received an average of $1.8 million a year. That pays for administrative costs of the program, education materials for residents and business owners and clean-up and restoration activities along the Anacostia. Specifically, the bag fee has paid for "trash traps" to contain litter before it enters the river and a student environmental education program.

If our D.C. neighbors have done this, it's time for Baltimore to step up to the plate.

Let's learn from other cities and craft an approach that makes sense here.

Like Washington, we could use the proceeds to pay for educational and environmentally focused activities — to address the broader trash problems that confront our city.

The Baltimore City Commission on Sustainability has looked at the trash issue closely. Baltimore is a proud city, and we have heard loud and clear that the citizens of Baltimore are tired of the trash and litter.

Sustainability is more than a buzz word. It is a guiding principle of economic development to plan for how we manage our city now and for future generations. We don't have to live with trash forever.

The bag fee is a small step that will make our city cleaner, healthier and more vibrant.

Earl Johnson lives in the Oliver neighborhood, and Gerrie Okwesa lives in the Reservoir Hill neighborhood. Both are members of the Baltimore Commission on Sustainability. Mr. Johnson's email is earl.johnson81@me.com; Ms. Okwesa's email is gokwesa@yahoo.com.


To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.