This week, Baltimore is finally going to take an important step toward a more sustainable future. The city’s ban on plastic bags, postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic first in January and then in July, takes effect on Friday, Oct. 1. Some city residents understand this as a cause for celebration, but others are likely to be less than thrilled by the consequences. It means that shoppers will need to remember to bring reusable bags on their next trip to the grocery stop or similar venue or else be prepared to pay for paper — at least a nickel-a-bag, with a penny of that eventually going to city coffers. Baltimore is hardly the first jurisdiction to take such a step. Howard and Montgomery counties (along with a handful of municipalities) have restricted their use through bans or taxes, as well, and at least eight states have banned plastic bags.
In choosing to twice postpone the measure, which had been discussed for a decade and a half, Mayor Brandon Scott demonstrated an appropriate sensitivity to the circumstances of city retailers, particularly carryout restaurants, that have struggled financially during the pandemic. The last thing they needed was the added burden of compliance with a restriction some of their competitors in Baltimore County and elsewhere do not face. Yet it was also clear that concerns in the early weeks of the pandemic — that COVID might be passed through reusable bags — proved unsupported by real-life experience. Thus, the question boiled down to when retailers would be in a position to make the transition. Given the experience of other cities that have moved away from single-use plastic bags, including the nearby District of Columbia, Mayor Scott appears to have made the right call. This can be done. And there is some urgency behind it.
Unless anyone has forgotten, Baltimore has a trash problem. Plastic bags are far from the worst offender, but they are an especially obvious one. The flimsy, yet non-biodegradable, bags having become a common sight in parks, along streets, in the branches of trees and floating in the Inner Harbor. Even recycling (in those jurisdictions with robust programs) isn’t an option because of cost and lack of resale market. And so, the bags linger or help fill landfills or pollute waterways or, worse still, they are incinerated, which releases harmful toxins into the air. Whatever their convenience to Harris Teeter patrons and the like on any given grocery shopping day, the price in the long-term is simply too high.
Might businesses and consumers voluntarily make this transition into paper or reusable? Absolutely, and many have. But this is also a case where government intervention is helpful in leveling the playing field. The only serious worry remaining is that low-income families will be more greatly inconvenienced by the added cost of reusable bags. City officials considered this and have made efforts to purchase and distribute reusable bags — 16,000 so far and another 35,000 in the weeks ahead. We would expect business owners to jump on that bandwagon with giveaways as well. Can there be better publicity for your retail outlet than to have a customer reuse a reliable bag with your logo?
Still, people being people, we expect to hear some squawking. Not just from shoppers but from those ill-informed naysayers who tsk-tsk that a city with a high homicide rate would fret about something so pedestrian as plastic bags. What they may fail to recognize is that an improved quality of life is a key component of any anti-crime push. It’s not just about plastic bags or trash or even cleaner air, of course, but improved housing, schools, transportation, access to health care, less food insecurity and access to jobs. And there’s nothing wrong with Baltimore setting the example so that certain less well informed subdivisions can mend their careless ways with harmful plastic bags, too. We’ve seen the future, and it’s greener than the present. Or at least it had better be for our children’s sake.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.