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Advocates try in Annapolis for plastic bag ban

Environmentalists and others fed up with litter are making a pitch in Annapolis for a statewide ban on plastic bags. But the effort faces long odds, with powerful industries opposed and many lawmakers skittish of any proposal that could cost or inconvenience consumers.

After failing in past years to put a fee on plastic bags, advocates are trying now to prohibit merchants from distributing them for most purchases. Plastic bag bans have been adopted by more than 180 communities across the country, including Chestertown in Maryland.

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The bill would also require merchants to charge 10 cents for every paper bag they give customers. At least half that fee could be kept by the stores as compensation for the higher cost of buying paper versus plastic bags. The state could deduct whatever it costs to enforce the program, and remaining fee revenues — potentially millions of dollars — would be distributed to communities for litter cleanups, neighborhood greening projects and the like.

"To me, it's a win-win," said Del. Brooke E. Lierman, a Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the bill in the House. "We're already paying for the cost of the bags we use. It's just a hidden fee."

But opponents are calling the plastic ban and paper fee a "tax" on consumers. Del. Kathy Szeliga, a Republican from Perry Hall, said she worried that the measure would hurt the poor.

"We all agree that litter is terrible, and we want to clean up our environment," Szeliga said. "Is taxing people ... or banning bags the best way to get there? I would say no."

A vote on the measure could come this week in a House committee. The bill was the subject of a hearing Tuesday in the Senate.

No one disputes that litter is an eyesore and a potential threat to people and wildlife. With an estimated 350,000 pounds of debris winding up in Baltimore's streams and harbor annually, federal and state regulators have put the city and Baltimore County on a trash pollution diet, ordering them to keep refuse out of the water.

Montgomery County — which has had a nickel fee on plastic and paper bags for three years — and Prince George's County are under similar orders to deal with litter flowing into the Anacostia River in Washington. Other large counties in Maryland are also being required to take steps to keep trash out of their storm drains.

Baltimore spends millions picking up litter and sweeping streets, while the Waterfront Partnership business group spends $200,000 annually to clean up trash around and in the Inner Harbor. The group installed a floating "water wheel" at the mouth of the Jones Falls last year, which so far has collected 41,000 plastic bags and nearly 89,000 plastic and glass bottles, according to the partnership's Adam Lindquist.

Even if properly disposed of in a municipal landfill, plastic bags remain in the earth for years. They can be recycled, but they're not taken by area curbside collection programs because they jam the machinery used to sort recyclables.

But efforts to deal with the problem by targeting consumers' habits have proved controversial. The nation's only statewide plastic bag ban, adopted last year in California, has been put on hold after an industry-sponsored petition drive to put it to the voters.

The Baltimore City Council has debated plastic bag fees or bans, but struggled with opposition from supermarkets and other merchants fearful of losing business to the county. The council finally voted a ban last year, only to have it vetoed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who said she didn't think the public had a chance to be heard. on it. Another bag ban bill has been introduced, but is unlikely to move unless the mayor can be satisfied it won't hurt the poor.

Lierman said she hoped statewide legislation would resolve business owners' fears about losing customers to neighboring communities that don't have bans or fees.

Whatever the reason, merchants are so split on the bill that the Maryland Retailers Association has taken no position on it. Advocates are heartened by having sidelined that powerful lobby, but that doesn't mean there aren't still vocal opponents.

The American Progressive Bag Alliance, a plastics industry group formed to fight bag bans and fees, calls the bill "misguided." While acknowledging that plastic bags are a highly visible form of litter, Robert Johnson, speaking for the group at Tuesday's Senate hearing, contended that in reality they make up a tiny share of the overall amount of trash and debris plaguing communities.

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Paper bag makers also oppose the bill because of the fee. Representatives of the American Forest and Paper Association noted that their products are recyclable and often made of recycled material. And a United Steelworkers official representing workers at plants making paper bags warned lawmakers that union jobs could be affected if demand falls.

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