The Baltimore City Council gave preliminary approval to a ban on retailers’ use of plastic bags Monday night, an issue that has been hotly debated for years.
The council voted 13-1 on the legislation, although there was a disputed last-minute amendment by the bill’s sponsor, Democratic Councilman Bill Henry of North Baltimore.
The ban needs one more vote, at the council’s Nov. 18 meeting, to advance to the desk of Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young.
“I am extremely optimistic about its passage,” said Henry, adding that Young has pledged to sign the bill or allow it to take effect without his signature.
A ban on plastic bags has been introduced nine times since 2006 in Baltimore.
The current legislation would forbid retailers from giving out plastic bags, and require them to charge a nickel for any other bag they supply to shoppers, including paper bags. It would apply to grocery stores, convenience stores, pharmacies, restaurants and gas stations, although some types of products would be exempt, such as fresh fish, meat or produce, newspapers, dry cleaning and prescription drugs.
Retailers would keep 4 cents from the fee for each alternative bag they supply, such as a paper bag, with a penny going to city coffers.
The bill would ban plastic bags with a thickness of less than four-thousandths of an inch. The amendment by Henry deleted language about bags that can be reused; Henry sought the change because he said some bag manufacturers claim even their thin bags can be reused. The amendment passed on an 8-5 vote.
Democratic Councilwoman Danielle McCray was the lone “No” vote on the overall bill; she did not offer an explanation during the meeting for why she opposed it and did not immediately return a message seeking comment. Democratic Council Vice President Sharon Middleton did not attend Monday’s meeting.
The bill has been through multiple changes on its way toward gaining approval. Last month, some council members tried unsuccessfully to change the bill to only ban the thinnest bags, effectively exempting most plastic bags.
The bill does not ban the use of plastic bags by city residents, rather it bans retailers from handing them out.
Retailers found to violate the ban three times or more would face a fine of up to $1,000.
The legislation would go into effect in late 2020, a year after the mayor signs it or allows it to become law without his signature.
Other Maryland jurisdictions have banned plastic bag, including Westminster, Chestertown, Takoma Park and Montgomery County, though their policies set different bag fees and apply to bags of varying thicknesses. Howard County officials are weighing a 5-cent fee on disposable bags.
There is a chance the Maryland General Assembly may consider a statewide bag ban or fee. The Maryland Retailers Association has said it would prefer a state law to a “patchwork” of local ordinances. Del. Brooke Lierman, a Baltimore Democrat, said she is working on a bill for the 2020 session.
Proponents of bans say plastic bags are among the most ubiquitous forms of litter, fouling ecosystems and harming wildlife. They say that when combined with fees on other types of bags, the policies can reduce all types of waste, rather than just replacing plastic waste with paper or some other alternative. They say there is evidence in Montgomery County and Washington, D.C., which together imposed 5-cent fees on plastic bags in 2009, that there was less plastic bag waste in the Anacostia River in the decade that followed.
In other business Monday night at the City Council, a bill to create a Port Covington community benefits district was introduced. Port Covington property owners would pay an additional real property tax surcharge that would be used to fund projects in the surrounding neighborhoods under legislation proposed by Democratic Councilman Eric T. Costello. The city has five other existing community benefits districts. In downtown, funds have been used for safety and landscaping.
Baltimore Sun reporters Luke Broadwater and Scott Dance contributed to this article.