Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. 'Jack' Young and other members of council discuss their amendment to legislation imposing a surcharge on plastic bag usage. The amendment would ban the use of the bags. (Yvonne Wenger/Baltimore Sun)
Baltimore's City Council moved to ban plastic bags handed out by grocery stores and big-box retailers Monday after dumping a proposal to charge a 5-cent fee for the bags to discourage their use.
The proposed ban would make Baltimore one of the first East Coast cities to outlaw plastic bags — decried for littering Baltimore's waterways. But it faces many obstacles before becoming law.
Retailers, stunned by the council's move, pledged to fight the ban. And Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she would veto it. Shoppers could end up paying more, the mayor said, noting that paper bags cost merchants at least twice as much as plastic.
"The bill has the potential to be a backhanded tax on residents," she said.
She also said she was dismayed by the lack of public input on the bill. The council gave preliminary approval to the ban after holding a hearing focused on the 5-cent fee.
"If you dramatically and essentially change legislation with anticipation of passing it without public participation, I do not believe that constitutes good government," she said.
Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said city leaders have long agreed on the need to reduce dependency on plastic bags, citing the environmental harm they can cause. He said a fee, while well-intended, would impose a burden on city families.
"I decided the best course of action was an outright ban," Young said. "The research is clear: We know that reducing our usage of plastic bags has a direct impact on the health of our waterways. For me, the choice is clear."
The council voted 11-1 for the ban, which could receive a final vote as early as this coming Monday. Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector voted against the measure and Councilman Brandon M. Scott abstained.
Spector said the legislation imposes another burden on Baltimore-based businesses.
"It's so wrong-minded," she said. "I wish all of my colleagues would spend three months as a business owner in Baltimore City."
Scott said he supports the measure but abstained because he objected to the council amending the bill to ban plastic bags at the last minute. The 5-cent proposal had been set for a vote Monday.
It takes three-fourths of the council to override a mayoral veto.
Under the proposed ban, retailers would have to stop using plastic bags as of April 1. The bill exempts bags used to carry prepared foods from restaurants, prescriptions, and fresh produce, dairy and meat.
If approved, the city would become one of the first outside the West Coast to ban plastic. Other cities, including Chicago, Seattle and Portland, Ore., have passed similar bans.
California was the first state to approve a ban on plastic bags, although all counties in Hawaii also have outlawed them.
Baltimore Councilman James B. Kraft, the bill's sponsor, said he backed off the idea of charging a fee for plastic bags after last week's election. He noted the victory of Gov.-elect Larry Hogan, a Republican who frequently criticized Democrats for passing too many taxes and fees.
"Last week's election around the country showed us two things: People care about progressive issues; and they do not want to pay any more taxes or fees. We got the message," Kraft said.
Kraft defended the last-minute amendments to ban the bags. He said during a hearing on the 5-cent fee last week, the council heard a number of suggestions, including outlawing plastic bags and charging a fee for both paper and plastic sacks.
Environmental groups rallied behind the ban but argued that the city needs to do more to persuade Baltimoreans to take reusable bags with them when they shop.
"It's a step in the right direction, but it still doesn't accomplish what we would like it to do," said Johnathan Berard, senior manager for advocacy and public policy at Blue Water Baltimore. "This will turn people over to paper instead, which is more resource-intensive, and it is more expensive for small businesses."
Jeff Zellmer, senior vice president of the Maryland Retailers Association, said the ban would increase costs for stores, many of which are struggling to pay other taxes and fees, such as the 5-cent tax on bottled beverages. He cited the closure of Santoni's Supermarket last year as an example.
Zellmer said grocery stores operate on such narrow profit margins that some can't absorb any additional costs.
"They just can't make it," Zellmer said. "The grocery store business is a 1- to 2-percent margin, and they keep whittling away at that."
Zellmer warned that retailers would refuse to contribute to future political campaigns if council members approve a ban. "We'll make sure no grocery store gives a nickel to council," he said.
David Kim, chairman of the Korean-American Grocers and Licensed Beverage Association of Maryland, said he can't understand why the council would take such a drastic measure. If the city wants to fight litter, he said, council members should try to encourage people to change their habits.
"Baltimore City Council comes out with the craziest laws," he said.
Kim said many members of his association, which represents about 700 convenience and liquor stores, have become disillusioned and wary of investing in the city.
"Business is really down in Baltimore City," he said. "A lot of people are closing down in Baltimore City. I don't think people really care anymore. ... Maybe with a Republican governor, something will change."
Breaking News Alerts Newsletter
As it happens
Get updates on the coronavirus pandemic and other news as it happens with our free breaking news email alerts.
Lee Califf, director of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, said without the free plastic bags, people will buy plastic bags that are often thicker and made of heavier plastic for various household uses, such as cleaning up pet waste or lining bathroom trash cans.
"Our bags are often referred to as single use, but everyone we know reuses them," Califf said. "People find them very useful."
The alliance, which represents plastic bag manufacturers, argues that those concerned about the environment should promote recycling and reuse. And, the group notes, plastic bags use less water and energy to manufacture than do paper bags.
The alliance also warned that a ban would threaten the jobs of 140 Marylanders who work in plastic bag manufacturing at one of its members, Advance Polybag Inc. in Elkridge — a claim that some council members reject.