Plastic might get the sack

Baltimore, Annapolis will consider legislation on bags

June 08, 2007|By Nia-Malika Henderson | Nia-Malika Henderson,Sun reporter

That standard checkout-line question, "Plastic or paper?" could be rendered moot in the state capital and Baltimore under ordinances being proposed to reduce litter and protect the environment.

The Baltimore and Annapolis city councils are scheduled to hear legislation that would outlaw common plastic bags at grocery stores, pharmacies, clothing shops and other retailers.

"Banning plastic is the right way to go. We can live without plastic checkout bags," said the sponsor of the Annapolis ordinance, Alderman Samuel E. Shropshire.

In taking up the paper-vs.-plastic question, Baltimore and Annapolis are joining a handful of cities questioning the wisdom of widespread use of the bags.

Boston; Santa Cruz, Calif.; and Portland, Ore., are also considering bans. In April, San Francisco became the first city to enact a partial ban on certain types of plastic bags.

Supporters of the bans say that manufacturing plastic bags squanders nonrenewable resources such as natural gas and crude oil - upward of 12 million barrels of oil each year.

Add to that the nuisance of the bags blowing along roads or hanging from trees, and the danger they present to aquatic life when they end up in waterways.

Those in the pro-plastic camp contend that the bags are not only reusable and recyclable, but are a better environmental choice and require comparatively little space in landfills. And plastic bags are also much cheaper.

Baltimore's ordinance, to be submitted Monday night by Councilman James B. Kraft, would ban non-biodegradable bags in grocery stores and pharmacies - but not other retailers. Plastic bags made of corn starch would be permitted.

"Very frankly, I don't think it will pass first time out. This will die before we can vote on it, but what it will do is open discussion so we can come back in the next term," Kraft said.

Under the proposed Annapolis ordinance, scheduled to be introduced July 9, all stores would have to issue recyclable paper bags, or customers would have to provide their own reusable bags. Retailers would face up to $500 in fines for issuing plastic bags.

Shropshire said San Francisco's law, which covers only large retailers and allows plastic bags made of corn starch, didn't go far enough.

"What we need for the improvement of the Chesapeake Bay and tributaries is some radical legislation," he said. "Annapolis needs to set an example as the capital city and look at new alternatives."

`Silly, whimsical'

Though he predicts passage of his bill, other city leaders aren't so sure.

"This appears to be one of those silly, whimsical pieces of legislation. So like now, we're going to have the plastic bag police?" said Alderman David Cordle. "We have more pressing problems with storm water runoff, erosion and growing greener to help with the air. Getting into the minutia of plastic bags is beyond our scope."

Mayor Ellen O. Moyer said, "We are an environmentally sensitive city. I'm not sure if it would be the majority of the council backing the bill, but there probably could be if there is a real big environmental plus."

"But the limited info I have is that there's a marginal difference environmentally between the two" types of bags, she said.

Shropshire plans to meet with environmental groups next week to lobby for support. But the proposal is unlikely to win much support among retailers in Annapolis.

"I think I understand where they are coming from with oil and pollution and the environment, but I don't thinks it's been very well thought out on the retailer side," said Chris Evans, manager of the Annapolis Graul's Market.

"If we had to switch to all paper, there would be a serious outcry. People want the choice."

Switching would be costly. The paper bags at Graul's cost about 9 cents each, compared with 2 cents for plastic. And plastic bags take up about a tenth of the storage space paper containers use, he said.

Up until the mid-1970s, paper bags were the only option around the country. Since then, plastic bags - often double bagged - have become an American checkout-line staple.

They are stuffed in pantries, dragged out to pack sandwiches or to discard cat litter, and used to line small garbage cans.

Each year, customers run through more than 100 billion plastic bags, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which stresses recycling and reusing but doesn't take sides in the bag debate.

Of those billions of plastic bags, roughly 5 percent end up recycled, with the rest in landfills or as litter.

A Greenpeace study of the world's oceans found damage to marine life from plastic bags. Turtles sometimes mistake them for food, and "trash vortexes" filled with swirling plastic bags sometimes form underwater.

But the organization doesn't take a stance on either bagging product.

"It's a difficult debate because there are environmental impacts related to both. We recommend using cloth bags whenever possible," said Jane Kochersperger, a Greenpeace spokeswoman.

"If you have to use plastic, recycle and reuse," she recommended.

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