Food stores and restaurants in Baltimore would be barred from giving away disposable plastic bags under a bill to be considered by City Council, unless the merchants join a program to encourage their customers to recycle or shop with reusable bags.
Putting aside earlier proposals to ban disposable plastic bags outright or levy a 25-cent fee on them, the council's Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee approved, 3-0 with two members absent, what members have dubbed a "mandatory-voluntary" approach. The panel's vote culminates nearly two years of debate over how to reduce the number of plastic bags given out by the city's stores, which frequently end up festooning trees, clogging storm drains and littering streams and the Inner Harbor.
Councilman James B. Kraft, chairman of the committee, called the proposed Plastic Bag Reduction ordinance a major achievement, saying it should enjoy support from both environmental activists and merchants, who had vehemently opposed other council measures to ban or charge a fee for disposable bags. It now for debate by the full 14-member council, starting on Monday.
"I think we're going to be able to do something no one else has been able to do," said Kraft, referring to the bitter struggles over limiting disposable plastic bags that have ensued elsewhere in Maryland and across the country. Several legislators in Annapolis this year, for example, are seeking to impose a fee statewide on disposable checkout bags, but it's given little chance to pass.
The Baltimore council bill would prohibit any store selling food from giving customers plastic bags for carrying away their merchandise unless they enroll in the city's "plastic bag reduction program." Participating merchants could still give out plastic carryout bags, but only if customers ask for them. The stores would have to collect the bags for recycling, offer reusable shopping bags for sale and post signs in their stores encouraging customers to use reusable bags. Violations would be subject to fines ranging from $100 to $1,000 for repeat infractions.
Participating merchants would have to report on how many disposable bags they give away and recycle, and on how many reusable bags they sell or give credit for at checkout. The information would be used to evaluate whether the campaign is succeeding. Council members stressed that if plastic bag use doesn't drop considerably in a couple years, they'd consider stronger measures.
Kraft, who represents southeast Baltimore, including the Canton waterfront, originally had introduced a bill in 2008 that would ban plastic carryout bags outright, not unlike a prohibition enacted in San Francisco. But he dropped that a couple weeks ago in favor of a voluntary approach after concluding the opposition was too great – and that merchants had raised some valid concerns about the fairness and impact of a bag ban on their businesses. The bill adopted today was worked out in negotiations with representatives of environmental interests, the city's merchants and bag manufacturers. The lobbyist for the Maryland Retailers Association and a lawyer for Walmart were on hand today to witness the committee's action, with the retailers' Jeffrie Zelmer recommending several last-minute wording changes.
Councilman Bill Henry, who represents north and northeast Baltimore, had proposed an alternate bill that would levy a 25-cent fee on plastic bags, and he broadened that to include disposable paper sacks as well. Before the committee meeting, he said he doubts voluntary efforts will reduce bag use and litter. But he indicated he's willing to give it a try, since there seemed to be little support for trying to alter shoppers' habits by charging them a fee every time they ask for a bag at checkout.
"It seems like a fair start, and we hope it's successful for Baltimore city," said Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who represents the city's north central neighborhoods. "If it's not, we have to come back and look at other options."