Hundreds of U.S. cities and counties and two states have outlawed plastic bags at checkout counters since the Baltimore City Council first considered a ban in 2006. More than a decade later, a proposal to rid the city of them could finally be ripe for passage.
A supermajority of the young and progressive council is backing legislation that would forbid grocers and other retailers from providing plastic bags at checkout. It also would require they charge a nickel when giving customers bags of any other type.
The bill’s chief aim is to eliminate one of the most common types of litter, a scourge of waterways that takes decades or centuries to break down. But proponents say the bag fee is just as important as the plastic ban, encouraging shoppers to bring reusable bags to the store instead of simply replacing plastic with paper or some other disposable material.
“We don’t want to just drive increased consumption of paper bags," said Ashley Van Stone, executive director of Trash Free Maryland. “We want to drive [waste] reduction across the board. And we want to see plastic bags out of our environment.”
Jerry Gordon, owner of Eddie’s Market in Charles Village, admits it’s an admirable goal and a potentially effective solution.
“I think it will change people’s behavior,” the grocer said.
But he nonetheless suggested a heated debate over the policy and its economic impact could be ahead. Many city retailers felt burned by a 2-cent tax the city passed on bottled beverages in 2010, and raised to 5 cents in 2012. Now, some say a switch to paper bags could quadruple their costs and make them less competitive with county and online retailers.
“To me, it’s government getting involved where they don’t need to be," Gordon said.
Baltimore was once at the forefront of the debate on environmental policies, including proposed bans on polystyrene foam and plastic bags. But the efforts failed for various reasons, until a foam ban that takes affect in October was passed last year.
The City Council considered bag bans eight times, approving the idea once, in 2014. The measure had the support of Bernard C. “Jack” Young, then council president and now mayor. But former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake vetoed it, noting the council switched from a bag fee to a ban at the last minute without needed public input.
Since then, bag bans and/or fees have gone into effect across two states and in more than 450 jurisdictions across the country, including in Westminster, Chestertown and Montgomery County in Maryland.
City Councilman Bill Henry, the plastic bag bill’s lead sponsor, said he introduced the proposal again because of wide support on the council, and from Mayor Young. Ten of the council’s 15 members are sponsoring the legislation.
Council President Brandon Scott and Councilman Eric Costello, chairman of the committee tasked with considering the bill, both have both expressed support for the policy, though Costello is not among its sponsors. A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday at City Hall. Scott and Costello say they’re open to negotiating the details. The bill says the ban would take effect a year after approval.
Retailers are resigned to the expectation that it will pass eventually — they’re just hoping to have a say in the proposal’s final form.
“There is this realization that a lot of these progressive policies that impact businesses are going to go through,” said Cailey Locklair Tolle, executive director of the Maryland Retailers Association. “Political changes have occurred.”
Supporters of plastic bans say, when designed right, they can reduce the amount of plastic wafting in the wind, tangled in tree branches or floating in waterways.
Jennie Romer, an attorney with the Surfrider Foundation who gathers information on bans at plasticbaglaws.org, said plastic prohibition isn’t the most impactful element of the policies — fees are what prompt shoppers to bring their own bags.
“It’s that reminder every time you’re at the register,” she said.
Proponents say there’s proof in Montgomery County and in Washington, D.C., which did not ban plastic bags but together started charging 5-cent fees on them in 2009. By 2015, proponents said, the policy reduced plastic contamination in the Anacostia River and other waterways to as little as a quarter of previous levels, though the data has been criticized as being unscientific. There and elsewhere, surveys have shown significant increases in reusable bag use.
There is also data to suggest bag bans are counterproductive. One frequently cited study suggests they actually promote sales of garbage bags that use more and thicker plastic. That’s because some people reuse shopping bags for their trash or pet waste.
The plastic industry argues that the policies push consumers to paper and cloth alternatives that leave environmental footprints of their own, requiring far more energy to produce than cheap plastic film does. Research suggests reusable bags must be used dozens if not thousands of times to give them a smaller environmental footprint than plastic. More than a dozen states have passed laws preventing local governments from enacting bag or foam bans.
Proponents of Baltimore’s ban say the proposal is not about figuring out which type of bag is worst. Their goal is to eliminate the most pervasive type of litter, and to reduce what else is being thrown away after just one or two uses.
"We really need to, as a country, rethink how we’re using our resources,” said Jennifer Kunze, Maryland program manager for Clean Water Action. “Actions like this at the local level can really help drive change to shift toward reusable products that are using fewer resources.”
Henry said he hasn’t heard concerns from constituents, who he thinks are more attuned to the importance of reducing waste as they see the city and state adopt foam bans and some national grocers already charging for bags.
“I think there’s a growing awareness of moving towards a more sustainable culture,” he said. “One start there is to eliminate single-use plastic bags.”
The debate on Henry’s proposal is more likely to hinge on its effects on retailers. It exempts purchases made using public benefits, such as food stamps, from the 5-cent bag fee. A little more than 200,000 city residents, nearly a third of the population, use food stamps, according to a 2015 report on the city’s food environment.
And each time the fee is collected, it proposes allowing retailers to keep a penny and sending 4 cents back to the city.
Tolle said she would rather see the city follow the lead of California, which imposed its 10-cent bag fee only on grocery, convenience and liquor stores, leaving clothing and hardware stores exempt. The Baltimore legislation would exempt some uses of plastic from the ban, including bags for produce or baked goods, prescription drugs, newspapers and dry-cleaned clothing.
“Consumers do not want to put their brand new pillows in a bag they just had onions and meat in,” Tolle said.
Retailers are frustrated at the thought that they could be forced to absorb most or all of the cost of the bag fee. Gordon said he estimates he’ll pay 8 cents for each paper bag he buys, 6 cents more than he pays for each plastic bag and an extra $20,000 a year. Larger retailers who buy in bulk could pay more than a nickel for each paper bag, instead of less than a penny for plastic, he said.
But not all shopkeepers expect their costs to rise. James Chang, owner of three LA Mart stores in Maryland, one in the Lakeland area of Southwest Baltimore, said that after Montgomery County instituted its bag fee, demand for plastic bags at his Silver Spring store fell by 90 percent. When bags are free, people don’t think twice about taking as many as they like, but now, most shoppers bring their bags and don’t complain, Chang said.
Still, Gordon finds it strange that he was once pushed to use plastic bags to save the trees. Now, he’s being pushed back the other direction.
“I accept they’re going to get rid of plastic bags,” Gordon said. But either way, he suggests problems with litter are behavioral, and have nothing to do with plastic versus paper. “A civilized person doesn’t throw a bag in the street."
But, he added, he doesn’t doubt the policy will reduce waste and change behavior. Last summer, he was charged a bag fee at the grocery store while visiting Long Island. On the same annual trip this June, before heading the store, he didn’t forget his reusable bag.