Besieged by bags

Our view: It’s worth a small fee to clean up the plastic bags fouling our environment

the Baltimore City Council should copy Washington’s successful program

February 22, 2010

The Baltimore City Council is again considering action to curb the mountain of plastic and paper bag waste accumulating on city streets. Most of this garbage ends up tangled in trees or clogging drainage grates, from whence it flows through the sewer system to pollute local rivers and streams. It's an eyesore and an environmental hazard the city just doesn't need.

But it's a mystery why the council, which has been grappling with this issue since 2007, hasn't simply followed the lead of the successful effort to reduce plastic bag use in Washington. The proposals now before the council -- to ban plastic bags altogether or to discourage their use by forcing grocery and drug stores to charge exorbitant fees for the bits of flimsy plastic -- are non-starters. What's needed are practical proposals that don't impose undue hardship on consumers and business owners struggling through a recession.

Fortunately, the city need look no farther than Washington for an example of how not to be the plastic bag capital of the universe. Last year, the District passed a law tying a small fee for plastic bags to efforts to clean up its polluted Anacostia River. Amazingly, the measure has cut plastic and paper bag waste there in half since it went into effect Jan. 1. There's no reason Baltimore can't do the same.

Washington's law requires grocery and liquor stores to charge customers a nickel a bag if they don't bring their own reusable containers, with part of the proceeds going to a fund that is expected to raise $3 million this year for river restoration. That's encouraged more people to bring their own bags to market and significantly reduced the number of plastic bags handed out in stores. Some supermarkets have seen plastic bag use drop from 6,000 a week to 3,000, with even greater declines at discount chains.

Washington's success has been largely due to the backing of both environmentally conscious consumers and the food retailing industry, which in the first weeks of the campaign gave away hundreds of thousands of free, reusable bags to get customers used to the change. Though the cost of the plastic bags was nominal, it was just enough to nudge people to alter their habits.

That should be the City Council's goal for Baltimore as well. No one should have to pay 25 cents for a plastic bag, as Councilman Bill Henry has proposed; Baltimore NAACP President Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham Sr. was right to say such an excessive charge would "punish" the city's poor. But many low-income families already shop at discount food marts that don't provide free bags, and they are used to reusing bags. A 5-cent-a-bag fee needn't be a hardship for anyone.

People will much more readily adapt to the change if they see the fees as an investment in a greener Baltimore, not just another revenue stream for the city. The council ought to earmark the proceeds for the kinds of environmental enhancements people can appreciate, such as cleaning up waterways, planting trees or upgrading parks. Del. Alfred C. Carr Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat, has introduced similar legislation this year tying a statewide bag fee to Chesapeake Bay restoration.

Baltimore's City Council also must work with local food retailers and vendors to get them to buy into the change with the kinds of incentives that helped Washington consumers make the transition. Store owners stand to benefit at least as much as their customers from a world without plastic bags, since the bags just add to their cost of doing business. None of this is rocket science. But nothing will ever change unless the council can get its act together to make it happen.

Readers respond

While I have no doubt that the bag fee will eventually pass statewide, the reality remains the same: The people targeted by this fee aren't learning anything about environmental responsibility by reusing the plastic bags, they're just trying to save a couple of nickels.

Evan

America pampers people. I grew up in the Third World, where amenities like plastic bags were unavailable, and we had to bring reusable bags to the stores. After living in the U.S. for 30-plus years, I am having a hard time remembering to bring reusable bags to the supermarket.

Poverty forces a simpler, environmentally friendlier existence, but plenty breeds contempt for conservation. People will throw away many nickels for the convenience of having plastic bags at hand -- the environment be damned. But 25 cents per bag would make them sit bolt upright and run back home from the supermarket to fetch their reusable bags.

Skeptic

Five cents might make a difference in the poorer neighborhoods, but I can't see the overdressed folks at the Canton Safeway taking it too seriously. But if a $0.25 per bag fee adds up to $3-plus a trip with all the double bagging, then they might take notice.

And I agree that any fees collected from this ought to go to improving the environment in the city. But that would require accountability, and it ain't going to happen.

Anonymous

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