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Howard County braces for the reality of plastic bag fee

A cashier in Wegmans in Columbia uses plastic bags for a customer's groceries in the check-out line. As Howard County prepares for the Oct. 1 implementation of a 5-cent fee on disposable plastic bags, business owners are readying for what the change in legislation means for their day-to-day operations.
A cashier in Wegmans in Columbia uses plastic bags for a customer's groceries in the check-out line. As Howard County prepares for the Oct. 1 implementation of a 5-cent fee on disposable plastic bags, business owners are readying for what the change in legislation means for their day-to-day operations. (Ana Faguy)

Pat Hersey spent months advocating for the Howard County Council to pass legislation to require a 5-cent fee on disposable plastic bags used in stores.

Last month, her relentless lobbying paid off.

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Hersey, the president of Less Plastic Please, a citizen-run organization in Howard County, was sitting alongside other environmental activists inside the George Howard Building on Dec. 2 when the legislation passed in a 4-1 vote, with Republican Councilman David Yungmann casting the lone vote against.

“We see this as a way to change behavior and to throw away our throwaway mentality,” Hersey said of the legislation. “The most effective way to do that is through the fee.”

As the county prepares for the Oct. 1 implementation of the fee, business owners are readying for what the legislation means for their day-to-day operations.

James Chang, president of LA Mart, a Maryland-based grocer that specializes in international foods and has a store in Columbia, said having a location in Montgomery County has prepared him. Montgomery County enacted a 5-cent bag fee on bags distributed by merchants in 2012.

“At first, a lot of customers [in Montgomery County] complained, but [the] reduction of plastic bag usage was unbelievable,” Chang said.

Howard’s legislation differs slightly. The Montgomery County law puts a fee on plastic and paper bags, while the Howard law only puts a fee on plastic bags. Since the legislation passed in Montgomery County, it has brought in $19.6 million in revenue from more than 492 million bags through the first six months of fiscal 2020, according to Montgomery County’s Department of Finance.

Howard Councilman Opel Jones, who introduced the bill along with Councilwoman Christina Mercer Rigby at the Nov. 4 County Council legislative session meeting, said in December he estimated a net revenue of $439,000 from the 5-cent fee in the first year and $685,400 every year after.

The revenue from the fee will be used to establish a program that will provide reusable bags to low-income residents; make grants to entities engaged in water quality and water pollution education; support environmental education programs, including stream cleanups and anti-littering education; and create activities to educate the public about the benefits and methods of reducing the use of disposable plastic products.

Chang said he has seen a 95% reduction in the number of plastic bags he’s had to purchase for his Montgomery County store.

“Since customers [in Montgomery County] are very used to it now, 90% of customers bring their own bag,” he said.

Chang said he fully supports the Howard legislation and anticipates similar financial savings from his Columbia store.

For other store owners in the county, there is concern the fee will be a hardship.

Brenda Franz, who owns Attic Antiques N Things on Main Street in Ellicott City, believes small businesses like hers should be exempt from the fee.

“When my customers come in here, they almost all want a bag,” Franz said. “I have the financial burden of buying those bags to give out to people. I also have the burden of record keeping.”

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She said many small shops in Howard County only have a few employees, and the fee puts more responsibility on local business owners.

“I could live with grocery stores and big box stores [getting the fee], but hitting the small business person is another notch in the belt to squeeze us out and then we go out of business,” she said. “We’re not Walmart; we cannot afford this.”

Franz is in the minority, according to Hersey, who said she spoke to many Howard County residents before the legislation was brought before the County Council.

“For the vast majority of people, [the reaction has] been positive,” she said. “Some people were actually surprised we didn’t already have a fee in place.”

LA Mart, an international grocery store in Columbia, has a box that contains reusable bags made from T-shirts, and customers can take as many as they need. The box was put there by Sue Hughen, of Columbia, a member of Less Plastic Please.
LA Mart, an international grocery store in Columbia, has a box that contains reusable bags made from T-shirts, and customers can take as many as they need. The box was put there by Sue Hughen, of Columbia, a member of Less Plastic Please. (Ana Faguy)

In order to help ease the process, Less Plastic Please member Sue Hughen went in search of a way to make reusable bags an economic possibility for everyone before the fee bill even went before the County Council.

Hughen said she was walking down the street one day and saw a storefront with an ad for coats that read: “Need a coat, take one, want to help, leave one.”

The Columbia resident thought of how she could do the same kind of thing with reusable bags. She said she realized she could use T-shirts to make reusable bags and then get the community involved in the process. So she began collecting T-shirts everywhere she could.

"To me, it was important to get the community involved ahead of time," she said.

Hughen met with members of the Howard County Public School System in early 2019, as they were looking for community-based projects for students with disabilities to get involved with, and she had the perfect pitch.

“When we started, I was trying for 10 a week. Before the bill went before the County Council, we had given away over 200,” she said. “When we started with the [schools], the count process fell [by] the wayside. It ramped up, [and] I couldn’t keep track.”

Lindsey Glascock, a fourth-year special education teacher at River Hill High School, has been the school liaison for the program. Within the Howard school system, there is a program at every high school for older special education students to go out into the community and practice skills.

Three times a week, Howard County students are practicing those skills by making the reusable T-shirt bags at First Lutheran Church in Ellicott City. The students collectively make about 25 to 30 bags a week.

“It’s a great opportunity for our students to learn different job skills while also doing something that’s meaningful for the community. We’re helping reduce plastic consumption,” Glascock said.

“We’re trying to emphasize to them the purpose of what they’re doing. People have so many T-shirts and a lot of people donate them, but it’s also great for T-shirts that are a little more worn. We can turn them into reusable bags instead of throwing them away.”

In Chang’s Columbia store, there’s a neon yellow box with free T-shirt bags. Hughen approached the store and asked Chang if she could set up a box for people to start to use the reusable bags.

“So far it’s going really good," Chang said. "A lot of local customers are looking for that if they didn’t bring their own bag. It saves plastic, and I think a lot of my customers are really aware of reducing their plastic usage.”

Hughen said she’s happy with the self-sustained operation that the schools have going.

“Now that the Howard County Public School System has been working out and is sustainable, maybe we can get another group involved as well,” she said. “Right now, we have a minority of people using reusable bags. We want a majority.”

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