Baltimore might impose a 10-cent fee on every plastic and paper bag distributed by merchants in the city — a move praised by environmentalists as a litter deterrent but decried by some businesses who say it would hurt them and their shoppers.
City Councilman Brandon M. Scott introduced a bill Monday to charge the fee on bags not just from supermarkets but from convenience stores, shops, service stations or any other "sales outlet" in Baltimore. He says the revenue could be used for parks and recreation but sees the legislation as an environmental measure.
"We have more plastic bags in the streams than fish," Scott said. "If you go to a park in my district, all you see is plastic bags."
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Monday that she's open to such a fee, reversing a stand she took four years ago as City Council president.
"We have to get creative about the way we protect our environment and encourage the behavior that we know will create a sustainable Baltimore," Rawlings-Blake said. She said she's included such a fee in her 10-year plan for the city, adding, "I am open to this legislation."
But the proposal is drawing protests. Robert Santoni Jr., the chief financial officer of Santoni's Supermarket, said the fees would hurt low-income shoppers as well as stores already reeling from a beverage tax increase championed by Rawlings-Blake last year.
"They're breaking our backs," Santoni said of city politicians. "They live in a fantasy world down at City Hall."
If approved, the city would join roughly 100 communities across the nation, most on the West Coast, that have banned or imposed fees on disposable plastic bags. Locally, Montgomery County and Washington, D.C., have imposed a nickel fee on both plastic and paper merchandise bags, with the revenue earmarked for stream restoration and litter cleanups. Legislation has been introduced in Annapolis to levy a nickel per bag fee statewide, but it failed to pass.
Scott's bill marks the third time in recent years that Baltimore officials have attempted to ban or tax shopping bags.
His bill as drafted would impose a fee of 25 cents per bag, but he said Monday he's planning to reduce that to 10 cents. The bill makes exemptions for bags that hold fresh food — such as fish, meat, fruit and dairy products – or to food bought with public assistance.
Under the legislation, store owners would be responsible for collecting the fee for the city and could be charged interest and penalties for late payments. Vendors who didn't comply could also face a misdemeanor charge, jail time and a $1,000 fine.
Brenda Platt, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a Washington-based environmental think tank, said fees like the district's and Montgomery's have proved effective at reducing disposable bag use and litter while encouraging consumers to bring their own sacks for merchandise. Platt said a higher fee, such as the 33-cent equivalent levy on bags in Ireland, might be an even stronger incentive to change behavior.
But Phil Rosenski, with the American Progressive Bag Alliance, a plastic bag manufacturing group, countered that plastic bags make up a tiny fraction of all litter —– about one-half of 1 percent. He pointed out that Virginia, California and Florida all killed bag fee legislation this year.
While Montgomery County officials and environmentalists say the year-old fee there has reduced both disposable bag usage and litter, the County Council, after hearing complaints from some merchants and consumers, is now weighing exempting most nonfood merchants from the fee.
Jeff Zellmer, senior vice president of the Maryland Retailers Association, said the Baltimore legislation should be amended to pay vendors 2 cents for every bag fee they collect. He said Montgomery County and the District of Columbia both pay stores a portion of the fees collected.
"For them to screw us like this, on top of the bottle tax, is rough," Zellmer said of Baltimore. "The bottle tax is already killing these guys." Baltimore's 2-cent bottle tax is scheduled to go up to 5 cents in July.
Similar legislation to levy a 25-cent fee was introduced in the council four years ago, along with a competing bill that would have banned the use of disposable plastic bags altogether. The proposals drew opposition from bag manufacturers and merchants, who warned that any city fee would drive shoppers to suburban stores and cost the city jobs and tax revenue.
Santoni and Zellmer say the compromise supermarkets struck with the city in 2010 — which banned plastic bags unless vendors participated in a program to encourage their customers to recycle or shop with reusable bags — is working.
Rawlings-Blake opposed the 25-cent bag fee four years ago when it was first raised, saying it would hurt the city's poorer residents and businesses. But Monday, she said it's not clear to her that the recycling ordinance has been effective.
"I think that whether or not it's worked is open to debate," she said.
However, Zellmer said: "It's been effective. The use of plastic bags is way down."
Scott said he had the bill drafted a while ago but was inspired to introduce it now after visiting the District of Columbia recently to attend an Orioles-Nationals baseball game. The District began levying a nickel fee per disposable bag in 2010, and officials there have credited it with reducing litter. Scott said in walking around Anacostia, he was struck by how clean the streets looked compared to the bag litter in the Inner Harbor or along Herring Run in his district.
While his bill doesn't specify how revenues from the bag fee would be spent, Scott said he hopes to get the council to set up a "green" fund, which would funnel the money into parks and recreation programs.
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young declined to comment on the issue, saying he had not fully reviewed the bill.
Scott's bill is among two environmental initiatives the council is now considering. On Tuesday, the council will hold a hearing on a bill that would prohibit food service establishments from using certain polystyrene products, such as Styrofoam.
City Councilman Brandon Scott introduced a bill Monday that would impose a fee on plastic and paper bags distributed by sales outlets in Baltimore. Scott says he intends to propose a 10-cent fee. The bill would require supermarkets and other stores to collect it or face penalties. The bill heads next to a council committee for a hearing.