After years of debating whether to ban disposable plastic store bags or slap a fee on them, the Baltimore City Council appears poised now to try fighting the city's litter problem with half a ban.
Under a bill endorsed by a council committee Tuesday, food sellers would be given a choice of offering only paper bags or encouraging their customers to cut back on or recycle the plastic ones.
James B. Kraft, chairman of the Judiciary and Legislative Investigations panel, said the measure should overcome objections store owners have to an outright bag ban or fee, which the panel had been considering since 2008. He also said he believes he has enough votes on the 14-member council to get it passed.
Kraft said the bill, worked out in talks the past two weeks among merchants, bag manufacturers and environmental activists, represents a middle ground in the "bag wars" that have raged in Maryland and across the country over how to get the ubiquitous, flimsy plastic sacks out of the waste stream, out of trees and out of the water.
"I think we're going to be able to do something no one else has been able to do - pass a measure dealing with plastic bags that is acceptable to the business community and to the environmental community," said the councilman, who represents Southeast Baltimore, including the Canton waterfront.
The revised measure would prohibit supermarkets, convenience stores and restaurants from handing out bags at checkout unless they opt to participate in a "plastic bag reduction" program.
Participating merchants could still give out plastic 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 the reusable sacks. Violators would be subject to fines ranging from $100 to $1,000 for repeat infractions.
A lobbyist for merchants who participated in the bill's crafting indicated to City Council members that business owners could live with the more voluntary tack.
"When we began this," said Jeffrie Zellmer of the Maryland Retailers Association, "we were charged with getting a horse. We did get a camel, but it walks, and moves and works."
Not all environmentalists are on board. Mary Roby, executive director of the Herring Run Watershed Association, said she was disappointed by the hybrid approach.
"It seems like it would have been easier to just ban the bags," Roby said.
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.
Councilman Bill Henry, who had pushed for a 25-cent fee on every plastic and paper bag, said he still questions whether exhortations to recycle will change consumer habits sufficiently, but he's willing to give this approach a try for the next couple of years.
The Northeast Baltimore Democrat said he expects some reduction in plastic bag use anyway because many small grocers and takeout shops won't want to deal with the hassle of selling reusable bags or keeping track of their bags, and will switch to using paper bags only, which are not regulated by the ordinance.
Joseph Kim, president of the Baltimore chapter of KAGRO, which represents about 500 Korean-American grocers and liquor store owners in the city, said he expects that his members and their customers will adjust to any new requirements regarding bags. But he said he thinks public education and advertising will be needed to get consumers to change their habits.
Communities across the country have struggled with whether to curtail the distribution of plastic bags in stores and restaurants as a way of combating litter.
A handful of places have banned plastic outright, most notably San Francisco in 2007.
Mark Westlund, spokesman for the California city's environment department, said municipal officials had originally opted to work with merchants on reducing plastic bag use voluntarily. But after a couple of years of getting little or no cooperation from stores on reporting their bag usage, Westlund said, the city abandoned voluntary efforts and prohibited supermarkets and chain pharmacies from using anything other than 100 percent-recycled paper bags.
San Francisco officials have measured a 50 percent drop in plastic bag litter on the streets since the ban took effect, the spokesman said.
Another city that has tried voluntary recycling without noticeable success is Annapolis. The city's aldermen considered banning plastic bags about the time San Francisco acted, but opted instead to set a nonenforceable goal of reducing the number of plastic bags given away by 40 percent.
Phillip McGowan, spokesman for the Annapolis city government, said the bag reduction goal has not been achieved, and data from merchants on their bag distribution have been hard to come by.