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Plastic or paper? Soft start for B'more's new bag law

Baltimore's new "plastic bag reduction" ordinance finally kicked in this week, almost without a peep. But clearly not everyone's on board yet.

Since Tuesday, all merchants in the city have been barred from putting customers' purchases in plastic bags unless they first ask if the flimsy sacks are wanted.

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Supermarkets, restaurants and other places that sell food also are required to provide recycling bins on premises for any plastic bags they do give out.  And as an alternative, they must offer to sell customers re-usable shopping bags.

As of Wednesday, 1,058 food dealers had registered online to keep using plastic bags under the conditions set by the new ordinance.  That's less than a third of the 3,500 establishments licensed by the city health department to sell food.

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Still it's an improvement over the snafus that botched the law's original start three months ago. City officials didn't get the online registration system set up until shortly before the ordinance was to take effect on Sept. 1, and many merchants complained they hadn't been able to log in so they could legally keep giving out plastic bags.  Others said they simply didn't know anything about what they were supposed to do.   An embarrassed City Council was forced to delay the law's startup.

Since then, City Hall has set up registration and even posted online the signs merchants are supposed to download and post in their stores and eateries advising customers that plastic bags are available only on request.  And the response has been smoother, if still not entirely happy.

"We're up and running," says City Councilman James B. Kraft, one of the chief architects of the plastic bag law.  Kraft, who represents Southeast Baltimore, says it's taken effect mostly "under the radar" - without much fanfare or fuss.

It's a relatively calm start to a compromise ordinance hammered out after prolonged and fierce debate, with environmentalists pushing to ban plastic bags outright or discourage their use by imposing a nickel fee on each. 

But the city's supermarkets and other retailers mounted stiff resistance, and ultimately prevailed in getting City Council to let them continue using plastic bags as long as they ask first and offer to recycle them.

"I've not had a negative contact about this in the last 30 days," Kraft says, though he has fielded some querulous calls from merchants who didn't understand their options under the law.

One of those was from an executive with P.F. Changs, the Asian restaurant chain, Kraft relates.  But the caller hung up relieved after learning the establishments are exempt from the law because they only uses paper bags for carryout or leftovers.

"If you just switch to paper bags, you don't have to do anything - you don't even have to register," acknowledges Beth Strommen, manager of the city's Office of Sustainability.

Indeed, businesses that switch to paper bags don't have to post signs, recycle, or file reports every six months with City Hall on bag usage, as do merchants still giving out plastic.

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Though not required to, about 45 businesses have emailed or telephoned to report they're switching from plastic to paper merchandise bags, Strommen says.  But it's likely many more have opted for paper over plastic.

Melvin Thompson, legislative director with the Maryland Restaurant Association, says he believes most city eateries are switching to paper, if they haven't been using it already.

"We primarily use bags only for those rare occasions where people may want a doggie bag or for our customers who order carryout," Thompson says.  Restaurants typically don't use nearly as many bags as a supermarket or even a corner grocery.   Thus, even though paper bags tend to cost a little more than plastic bags, Thompson adds, "for restaurants, it's just easier to swithc to paper bags, and that's what most of them have done."

Jeffrie Zellmer, lobbyist with the Maryland Retailers Association who helped write the law, says he believes that the chains and large stores that sell food have all registered so they can keep using plastic bags.  Requiring them to recycle the bags is no big deal, he adds.

"We were doing it anyhow," he says.  Still, he adds, the new law may not be noticeable instantly at every checkout counter. "It'll take some time to phase in (training) with the checkers to ask if they want plastic."

Violaters can be fined $250 for a first offense and up to $1,000 for a third offense in six months.  But Strommen indicated city officials plan to ease into enforcement, to give merchants time to get used to the new requirements.

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City health inspectors will be checking on compliance with the plastic bag law during routine visits to food dealers, she said, and apparent violators will get a warning letter or postcard.  Businesses likely will get a similar warning if consumers call 311 to complain they're not obeing the law.

Kraft says he expects it'll take a while to get corner grocers and other small businesses to fall in line with the new law.

"We're dealing with this as something that's going to take time," acknowledges Strommen.  "We're going to have to figure out ways to continue outreach."  But rather than fining merchants, she adds, "what we want is for them to educate people that they don't need a bag all the time."

For Kraft, the real measure of the law's success will be if the reporting required of food dealers over the next two years shows a drop in plastic bag use.  He originally wanted to ban them as a way of cutting down on the number of errant flimsy sacks trashing Baltimore's harbors, streams and trees.

Even if many merchants switch to handing out paper bags, Kraft says he'd consider that a victory of sorts, because they're easy for residents and businesses to recycle.  The city's single-stream recycling program, however, can't handle the plastic bags, so merchants using them now need to make their own arrangements to recycle.

Noting that merchants had pressed for a chance to show that a voluntary approach can reduce bag use and litter, Kraft says it's on them now to step up.

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"If it works and results in a significant reduction, I think the program will continue," he says. "If it doesn't, we'll have to look at alternatives."

(AP file photos)


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