Baltimore moved a step closer to becoming one of the first cities in the nation to ban plastic bags at grocery stores and retail chains after the proposal skidded through a critical City Council committee vote yesterday.
Intended to keep the hard-to-degrade sacks from winding up in waterways or caught on tree branches, the proposal would require large stores to bag groceries in paper or reusable bags only.
San Francisco became the first city in the country to enact a partial ban on certain types of plastic bags last year. Annapolis considered a similar prohibition but decided late last year to study the issue further.
"We have to take these things out of the waste stream," said City Councilman James B. Kraft, the lead sponsor. "That's our goal."
Kraft's proposal was approved, 3-1, by the Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee and is scheduled for a vote by the 15-member council Monday. It is not clear whether the bill has the eight votes needed for approval by the full council.
A spokesman for Mayor Sheila Dixon, who frequently talks about the importance of keeping Baltimore clean, said the administration supports the measure.
"The mayor has been pretty consistent in her commitment to initiatives that reduce litter and put the city out front on protecting the environment," said the spokesman, Sterling Clifford.
Representatives from several Baltimore grocery stores said they oppose the legislation because paper bags are more expensive and because they require more energy to manufacture.
"It's basically saying that plastic bags are bad and paper bags are good," Gregory A. TenEyck, director of public affairs for Safeway, said of the proposed ban. "From an environmental perspective, that's just not the case."
Rob Santoni, who owns Santoni's Supermarket in Highlandtown, said he pays 2.3 cents for a plastic bag but would have to shell out about 10 cents for a biodegradable paper bag. Considering the thousands of bags he uses every day, the small difference can add up quickly.
"People litter, the bags don't litter," he said. "It's a serious issue, and I just don't think this is the answer."
Plastic bags, which are common at checkout lines, were introduced in the 1970s. Today, Americans use more than 100 billion plastic bags every year, according to some estimates. Only a small percentage of those are recycled.
Increasingly, grocery stores and other retailers are voluntarily offering reusable bags. Housewares giant Ikea started charging for plastic bags at its outlets last year.
Environmental groups say the bags wind up in the city's storm water system and are eventually washed into the harbor and beyond, where they can threaten wildlife.
"Plastic bags in the waterways carry all sorts of bacteria," said Mary Sloan Roby, executive director of the Herring Run Watershed Association. "It's within our grasp to be the cleanest city on the East Coast."
Smaller grocers - defined as those with gross annual sales of less than $500,000 - would be exempt from the ban. An amendment approved by the committee would delay implementation to Jan. 1, 2010.
City Councilman Robert W. Curran, who took a job bagging groceries after high school, was the sole no vote on the committee yesterday. He said he will stand with the unions representing grocery workers, which have opposed the bill.
City Councilwoman Agnes Welch, meanwhile, voted for the bill in committee so it could be vetted by the full council, she said. But she said she may not support the measure when it comes before the full council.