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The time has come for Baltimore to ban plastic bags — let’s just get the details right

The time has come for Baltimore to ban plastic bags — let’s just get the details right
Baltimore appears poised to ban plastic grocery bags after several previous unsuccessful attempts. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)

A ban on plastic bags in Baltimore is pretty much inevitable given the supermajority, and likely veto-proof, support for legislation introduced by City Councilman Bill Henry.

Cities across the country have targeted the environmentally unfriendly plastic bags that supermarkets use to package our groceries and restaurants wrap up our carryout orders. It’s about time Baltimore joined the bandwagon. City officials recently approved a ban on foam containers, and plastic bags are the logical next step.

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The bags are a bane to the environment, rolling down streets like tumbleweed, twisting up in tree branches, clogging storm water drains and floating in our waterways where they are mistaken for food by turtles and other animals. It can take years for the bags, which also release dangerous chemicals over time, to break down.

Take a closer look at the trash piles that President Donald Trump saw fit to bash Baltimore about and you’re likely to pull out plastic bags. They foul our waterways — Mr. Trash Wheel and his friends have collected 676,016 plastic trash bags at latest count — and pose threats to wildlife.

Mr. Henry’s bill would forbid grocers and other retailers from providing plastic bags at checkout and charge a five cent fee for other bags, such as those made of paper — a recognition that paper bags have environmental consequences of their own.

As the council debates what a ban would ultimately look like, we just ask that they take into account Baltimore’s low-income population and the higher cost of doing business in the city.

The council should carefully consider whether 5 cents is the correct fee. Retailers already are complaining about the costs and showed up to a recent City Council hearing to express their opposition to the bill. We realize the fee is what seems to have worked in many other cities. But high taxes already make it more expensive to do business in Baltimore. We wouldn’t want to see additional costs scare businesses away or prevent new ones from coming. Grocery stores in particular have slim margins and need every financial incentive to come into the city, which has large food deserts. Many retailers at a recent City Council hearing said they have accepted the idea that this is the year a ban could pass, and we urge council members to work with them to make sure the policy has the least possible impact on Baltimore’s business climate. Ultimately, we hope that this legislation, like Baltimore’s ban on polystyrene foam containers, will help spur statewide action, which would eliminate any disadvantage city retailers might face compared to their competitors in the suburbs.

The legislation as it stands would exempt people who use food stamps from paying the nickel fee. (Retailers would collect 1 cent of that fee, with the rest going to the city.) That is great for the 200,000 residents on food stamps who already struggle to pay for food and would feel any extra expense. The council might want to also consider using part of the five-cent fee to set up a fund to give low-income people reusable bags. This is something New York City included in its plastic bag ban legislation.

But we bet most residents will quickly adapt to the change. Most people won’t even notice the additional 5 cents, which would cost the average family about $45.63 a year. Many customers already use reusable bags anyway.

And despite the concerns expressed by retailers, many restaurants and grocery stores have already switched away from plastic as well, and some even pay consumers a small token for using reusable bags. That’s true at a high-end grocer, like Whole Foods, and at a discount chain like Aldi, which charges customers more than 5 cents a bag already. Other businesses find ways to adapt as well.

The proposal wasn’t such a sure shot the last eight times the City Council tried to implement it. They came close in 2014 before then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake exercised her veto power to kill the bill.

The City Council now has enough support to override such a veto. That likely won’t be a problem anyway, given that Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young has supported such bans in the past.

Hundreds of other cities, including Washington, D.C., have imposed plastic bans without a large exodus of business or other major complications. Baltimore can do the same.

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