Proposal for Howard plastic bag fee supported, decried

A proposal that would allow Howard County to place a fee on plastic bags received support during a Monday hearing where more than 20 residents urged state lawmakers to vote in favor of an enabling bill.

The legislation, which would allow the County Council or county executive to place fee of up to 5 cents on each plastic bag, would not apply to bags used for bulk produce, dry cleaning, newspapers, prescription drugs or paper bags. Shoppers would pay the fee to the retailers, who would send the money to county government.

Several counties have imposed similar fees, often called a bag tax, to encourage recycling and reduce litter and waste. Howard County needs state legislation to be able to enact the fee but it is unclear if the incoming county executive and County Council would support it.

The legislation was not aggressive enough for Carolyn Parsa, chairwoman of the Howard County Sierra Club, who said the bill should include paper bags.

“I fear that if retailers are mandated to charge only for plastic bags, they will return to the old habits of providing paper bags for free,” Parsa said. “This would be counterproductive to our goal of encouraging customers to using reusable bags.”

Alisa Niefeld-Batiz, co-founder of Less Plastic Please, an advocacy group that requested Democratic state Del. Terri Hill to introduce the bill, suggested the timeliness of the bill is essential as the economic and health effects of climate change would be felt within a few decades, according to a report released by President Trump’s administration last Friday.

Plastic bags, which are made from polyethylene, emit greenhouse gases and contribute to climate change, according to a 2018 report by researchers at the University of Hawaii. This reality, researchers surmised, would be exacerbated in coming years as the use of plastic increases.

Christopher B. Costello, a lobbyist representing Howard’s Chamber of Commerce, was the lone voice in opposition. He said the bill’s language would have “unintended consequences” for retailers who would have the “fiduciary responsibility for what happens to the fee.”

“We don’t know whether they get to keep the fee or if they give the fee to the county,” Costello said. “For retailers, this is presented to them as one more layer of regulation and taxes added to a litany of regulations and taxes that hits them year after year.”

The bill, if passed by the General Assembly, would allow County Executive-elect Calvin Ball to introduce, approve or veto legislation to implement the fee. Ball previously said he doesn’t plan to introduce legislation and in an interview last week, declined to say if he would support or veto legislation that also could originate from the County Council.

Incoming District 2 Councilman Opel Jones, A Democrat, on Monday said he “need[s] to see research first” before taking a stance on the issue.

Incoming Republican District 5 Councilman David Yungmann last week said he would not support legislation which he labeled “regressive.”

“It would disproportionately affect the people that cannot afford it,” Yungmann said.

No other incoming council members responded to requests for comment. Newcomers are filling all five seats on the council and they are to be sworn into office Monday.

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