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Bring your own bag: After pandemic delays, Baltimore’s ban on plastic bags takes effect Oct. 1

Baltimore’s ban on plastic bags goes into effect Oct. 1, more than 15 years after city leaders first proposed a similar law.

Called the Comprehensive Bag Reduction Act, the rule affects grocery stores, restaurants and retailers. It applies to food and produce purchased in person, as well as through apps such as Instacart. Shops will need to charge customers at least 5 cents per paper bag, including a 1-cent fee that will be paid to the city.

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Retailers need to report the number of paper bags used, starting next week, but have a month-long grace period before they need to start paying the penny fee. That money will go into the city’s general fund.

Originally set to begin in January, the ban was delayed amid the pandemic.

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Mayor Brandon Scott held a news conference Wednesday in Harbor East near the waterfront’s Mr. Trash Wheel to remind residents of the change, which he touted as “improving the environment of our city.”

Since 2010, neighboring Washington has imposed a 5-cent tax on all bags, and Scott said the rule contributed to an increasing cleanliness of the Anacostia River.

Tiffany Rheubottom, a cashier at Eddie's Market in Mount Vernon, bags groceries for a customer Monday afternoon.
Tiffany Rheubottom, a cashier at Eddie's Market in Mount Vernon, bags groceries for a customer Monday afternoon. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

Baltimore’s rule goes a step further than Washington’s, outright banning single-use plastic bags. However, it doesn’t affect bags used for food sold at farmer’s markets, or the thin plastic bags used to individually wrap meats, fish and produce at stores. Newspapers and dry cleaners are exempt, too.

Since 2014, Mr. Trash Wheel has picked up more than 830,000 plastic bags from the Baltimore Harbor, said Adam Lindquist of the Waterfront Partnership’s Healthy Harbor Initiative, which maintains the anthropomorphic trash interceptor at the mouth of the Jones Falls.

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“We’re not going to put Mr. Trash Wheel out of business, but we do want to try to reduce the heavy lifting,” City Comptroller Bill Henry said.

Various city councilmembers have attempted to curb bag use in Baltimore through the years, beginning in 2005, said Henry, adding that he also introduced a bag fee while he was on the council.

“The 11th time’s the charm,” joked the former city councilman about the bag ban.

Asked why the legislation finally passed after more than a decade, Henry said: “We needed to get to a point where it was recognized that this is not just a couple crazy people in Baltimore trying to do something. ... This is literally a global movement.”

In Maryland, Chestertown banned plastic bags as early as 2012. In the General Assembly, Del. Brooke Lierman, a Baltimore Democrat, introduced a bill that would ban the bags across Maryland starting next year. Several states, including California, Maine and New York, already have passed similar bans.

The ban on plastic bags also coincides with the one-year anniversary of a statewide ban on polystyrene foam, often incorrectly called Styrofoam. Since then, Lindquist said, Mr. Trash Wheel has seen an 80% drop in the number of foam containers it takes in.

“These bans work,” he said.

Scott also announced Wednesday the creation of a sustainability and resiliency subcabinet to be led by City Administrator Chris Shorter. The group will focus on environmental issues including solid waste. The issue of waste management is top of mind for officials as the city’s landfills near capacity and questions are raised about the ongoing reliance on an incinerator.

While Scott acknowledged the new rules could cause growing pains for city residents not used to bringing their own bags, he suggested that, “If you’re true blue Baltimore like me, you already have a stash of bags underneath your sink.”

City officials already have passed out around 16,000 reusable bags, said Scott, and plan to distribute 35,000 more around the city. One stop will be Eddie’s of Mount Vernon, the decades-old grocery store on Eager Street.

A customer leaves with plastic bags of groceries at Eddie's Market in Mount Vernon. Sept. 22, 2021
A customer leaves with plastic bags of groceries at Eddie's Market in Mount Vernon. Sept. 22, 2021 (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

“I don’t love making people pay for bags,” said Eddie’s Store Manager Meghan Barnes, whose father purchased the business in 2000.

The grocery store sells paper bags for 25 cents, which Barnes said reflects their substantially higher price.

“We cannot eat the cost on it,” she said.

Many Eddie’s customers already use reusable bags, Barnes noted as one customer loaded groceries into a backpack.

As she packed up groceries into double plastic bags for customers, Eddie’s staff member Tiffany Rheubottom said she fully supported the ban.

When using plastic, cashiers often double-bag items to prevent them from breaking as customers are walking home. The trash, Rheubottom said, “ends up in the Bay, it ends up in the ocean. I’m all In favor of it.”

Carting handfuls of groceries in plastic bags, customer Stephen Mowbray agreed.

“Get rid of them,” he said as he set forth for the trek back to his apartment. “I spent my whole career in D.C., they got rid of them a long time ago.”

But not everyone was so enthusiastic. The requirement to report bag sales places a burden on small business owners, said Deborah Falkenhan, owner of Falkenhan’s Hardware in Hampden. Her shop doesn’t have a point-of-sale system that would help it track the numbers easily.

She’s already begun telling customers that starting Oct. 1, the hardware store is adopting a strictly bring-your-own-bag policy, or pay $2.99 for a reusable tote.

“We will not be using any plastic bags, we will not be using any paper bags,” Falkenhan said. “I’ve got enough going on.”

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