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Paper or plastic? Baltimore City Council weighs pros and cons of cutting that choice in half

Paper or plastic? Baltimore City Council weighs pros and cons of cutting that choice in half
A Baltimore City Council committee hearing Tuesday pitted environmentalists versus retailers, who say legislation to end the use of plastic bags at city stores would place an undue burden on them. In this file photo, store owner Jerry Gordon bags groceries at Eddie's Market in Charles Village. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)

The Rev. Cheryl Bryant is sick of seeing discarded plastic bags littering the streets of Baltimore, floating in the Inner Harbor and “hanging like grotesque ornaments” from the city’s trees.

She believes God put human beings on this planet to be good stewards, and one way she says Baltimore can fulfill that divine purpose is by becoming the latest city to ban plastic bags at checkout counters.

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Bryant testified at Tuesday’s City Council committee hearing on the proposed prohibition. The Judiciary Committee did not vote on the bill, but will soon hold a work session to discuss next steps for the legislation, which is sponsored by a majority of the young and progressive council.

The hearing brought out environmentalists desperate to reduce plastic pollution and retailers who say the legislation as written places an undue financial burden on them.

“We’re not opposed to the goal of eliminating plastic. We think it’s a laudable goal,” said Stephen Klein, director of real estate for Klein’s ShopRite of Maryland. “We just want to find a cost-neutral way to do this.

“It’s extremely expensive to do business in the city. We can’t add more costs.”

Grocers and store owners took particular issue with a provision requiring them to charge a nickel when giving customers paper bags as an alternative to plastic. Each time the fee is collected, the council is proposing that retailers be allowed to keep a penny, while sending 4 cents to the city.

While those who oppose the bill seemed resigned to the idea that it will likely pass in some form, they’re asking for amendments to lessen the financial burden on business owners. The bill introduced by Councilman Bill Henry is co-sponsored by nine other members of the 15-member council, all of who are Democrats.

“We’re not opposed to the goal of eliminating plastic. We think it’s a laudable goal. We just want to find a cost-neutral way to do this."


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Klein estimated the switch to paper bags, which are much more expensive than plastic ones, will cost his store in Howard Park about $200,000 a year.

“If we could keep entire 5-cent fee, it would help us big time,” he said. “It wouldn’t cover entire cost, but it would go a long way.”

The city’s finance department estimates that the bill, as written, would generate about $1.2 million in revenue the first year it’s implemented, and decline each following year, as people adjust their shopping habits and begin using more reusable bags.

“This is an avoidable surcharge, with a high degree of uncertainty, so we cannot count on this revenue stream until we learn how Baltimore citizens and businesses react to the program,” according to the finance department’s Aug. 2 analysis.

Some retailers who voiced concern about the bill said a switch to paper bags could quadruple their costs and make them less competitive with suburban and online retailers.

Those who testified in support of the bill say the council must act quickly and decisively. Every day in the city, they testified, plastic bags are thrown out and go on to clog tributaries and harm wildlife.

Bryant reminded the committee of Republican President Donald Trump’s recent Twitter tirade against Baltimore, sparked by footage of garbage-strewn alleys in Democratic U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings’ district.

“Let’s show the world that Baltimore is not the rat-infested, crime-ridden city that some say we are,” she said. “Baltimore is a city that cares about our environment.”

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