Editorial: Westminster needs to carefully consider business impact of bag ban

Westminster held a public hearing on the proposal to ban single-use plastic bags within city limits last week. Discussion was lively and there will be more, given that the city opted to keep the issue open for more feedback after some revisions are made.

The proposed ordinance lists the reasons for the ban as to “protect the environment in the City and the planet; to reduce the presence of unsightly plastic bags in the public streets, gutters, rights-of-way, and trees,” and “to protect the City’s watershed.”


Fair enough. All you need is a windy day like Saturday to see plastic bags blowing around, stuck in trees, along the sides of roads destined for the throats and stomachs of animals. And those represent a tiny percentage of the bags that will be sitting in landfills for the next few centuries.

On the other hand, businesses devote an incredible amount of time and resources to figuring out how to save fractions of pennies, the only way to stay competitive in a cutthroat environment where financials dictate decisions.

Westminster, or anywhere in conservative Carroll County, is a surprising spot to see such a proposal put forward, seemingly a better political match in left-leaning Montgomery County. Then again, Carroll countians care about the land. Agriculture, a rural lifestyle, open space, it all means something to those who live here.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the average American family uses about 1,500 single-use plastic bags per year and 99 percent of those bags become litter or landfill waste. The plastic takes more than 500 years to degrade completely.

If passed, the ordinance would make Westminster the third municipality in Maryland to impose a bag ban, after Chestertown and Takoma Park. Recently, New York became the third state to pass such a ban.

County Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, whose district includes Westminster, spoke in support of the ordinance and said he hopes to see similar legislation at the state level. In many ways, this would be the ideal solution, helping the environment while not putting Westminster businesses at a disadvantage to those outside of city limits.

Members of the business community turned out for the public discussion, concerned about the potential impact of such a ban on small businesses.

Councilman Tony Chiavacci said based on his research, large chain stores might give out as many plastic bags in one day as small establishments do in a year.

He also said he found that paper bags are about eight times as expensive as plastic and a Westminster business owner stated the obvious: The cost of more expensive paper products would be passed on to the customer through higher prices.

Councilman Gregory Pecoraro, one of the co-sponsors of the legislation, said striking a balance between environmental impact and not harming small business was important, clarifying that “the goal is to go after the larger target.”

That’s fine, unless going after the larger target costs the city a major business such as a national chain grocery store that opts not to move in, or to move out, because of a plastic bag ban that has too great an impact on its bottom line.

The advocacy director of Trash Free Maryland said that organization is in favor of an exemption process for small businesses because a policy purely based on employee numbers might exempt chain convenience stores.

Again, fine, except a lot of chains are franchised to local ownership and in many ways operate more like a mom-and-pop business than a Goliath.

The ban would have minimal impact on most citizens, other than potentially higher prices. People can get used to carrying reusable grocery bags, for example, just as they’ve gotten used to recycling.


Still, this might be a bridge too far for local businesses, coming as it does on the heels of the the foam ban and the minimum wage increase, both passed by the Maryland General Assembly during the most recent session.

The next meeting of the Mayor and Common Council is May 13. We encourage Westminster residents and business owners to do their research and convey their thoughts to councilmembers between now and then.