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A Baltimore City Council committee on Monday advanced a proposal to ban retailers from giving shoppers plastic bags in most cases and requiring them to charge a nickel for any other type of bag, including paper. A shopper carrying a plastic bag is shown in this file photo.
A Baltimore City Council committee on Monday advanced a proposal to ban retailers from giving shoppers plastic bags in most cases and requiring them to charge a nickel for any other type of bag, including paper. A shopper carrying a plastic bag is shown in this file photo. (GETTY IMAGES)

A Baltimore City Council committee advanced a proposal Monday to ban retailers from giving shoppers plastic bags in most cases and requiring them to charge a nickel for any other type of bag, including paper.

Settling debates that had slowed the legislative process since the council began considering the bill this summer, the lawmakers removed a provision exempting some thicker plastic bags from the ban and decided that 4 cents of the fee on each bag would go back to retailers.

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Previously, the ban was set to apply only to thinnest of plastic bags — those 2.25 thousandths of an inch or thinner like the typical grocery store bag — and the fee gave retailers only a penny for each paper bag they handed out.

The bill is scheduled for a preliminary vote from the full council Nov. 4. It had been expected to get a vote at Monday night’s council meeting, but Democratic Councilman Eric Costello said the body missed a printing deadline to move the measure that quickly.

The ban would not apply to bags used to hold fresh fish, meat or produce, newspapers, dry cleaning or prescription drugs. It otherwise would apply to all sales at grocery stores, convenience stores, restaurants, gas stations or “other sales outlet[s].”

A supermajority of the council co-sponsors the bill, so it is expected to pass easily.

Such bans on single-use plastic bags are expected to contribute to reducing litter where they’re imposed.

Before the council’s judiciary committee advanced the legislation, most of the discussion at the panel’s meeting Monday was tied to an expectation that a statewide plastic bag ban could soon preempt the city’s policy. Council members sought advice from a city lawyer on whether to add language stating an intent for state law to supersede city law, but did not make a decision on that point.

Cailey Locklair Tolle, president of the Maryland Retailers Association, said her organization no longer opposes the city bill because she expects the General Assembly to pass plastic bag-related legislation in 2020. As more county and municipal governments around the state adopt bans, retailers are seeking a simpler, statewide policy as opposed to what she called “this bizarre patchwork” of bag bans and fees.

For example, Westminster, Chestertown, Takoma Park, and Montgomery County now have plastic bag bans. But the policies differ when it comes to fees and the thickness of bags and types of businesses affected. Howard County is considering imposing a 5-cent fee on all disposable bags.

Del. Brooke Lierman, a Baltimore Democrat, plans to propose legislation that bans plastic bags across the state and imposes a fee on paper bags, though she said the details aren’t yet clear.

She said she is optimistic about her bill’s prospects given growing awareness of the harms of single-use plastics. Still, she expects “a difficult lift” getting the proposal passed. Multiple bag ban and fee proposals have failed in the General Assembly since at least 2010.

Yet Maryland is poised to become the first state to ban polystyrene food containers next year. The state legislature approved the policy this year, the third time Lierman and Sen. Cheryl Kagan, a Montgomery County Democrat, proposed it. Baltimore City also recently passed such a foam ban, which took effect Oct. 19.

Of the Baltimore bill advancing, Tolle said she was pleased to see more of the bag fee go back to retailers, though she had pushed for them to receive 6 cents or more per paper bag to help cover the higher cost of such bags.

Jordan Craig, a spokesman for the American Forest & Paper Association, said his organization will continue to oppose the proposal for a fee on paper bags. They are sustainable and should not be penalized, he said.

Democratic Councilman Bill Henry, the bill’s lead sponsor, said he was “overjoyed” to see it advance after at least seven similar proposals failed since he joined the council in 2007.

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“When we first took on this issue, we were at the forefront,” Henry said. “So many other places have done this. It’s now a more common position in society that single-use plastic is not good.”

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