Paper, plastic or meaningless legislation?

Our view: Baltimore City Council's proposed compromise on plastic bags accomplishes virtually nothing

March 22, 2010

A proposal in the Baltimore City Council to help clean up the environment by limiting the use of plastic bags in shops and stores is a perfect example of a law so compromised by the demands of competing special interests that it ends up accomplishing nothing.

The plan endorsed Tuesday by a City Council panel started out honestly enough. Three years ago, the council began considering proposals to deal with the mounting problem of plastic and paper bag waste accumulating on city streets. The idea was to use a combination of incentives and a small fee on disposable plastic bags to persuade consumers to change their shopping habits by switching to reusable bags.

We thought the proposed fee was too high, but the concept was straightforward enough, and it was wholly in keeping with former Mayor Sheila Dixon's goal of a cleaner, greener Baltimore. Supporters hoped to see fewer bags tossed onto streets and alleys, tangled in trees or ending up contaminating the region's water supply. Moreover, the proceeds from the bag fees could be earmarked to help clean up the environmental hazards created by these materials.

Yet the proposal that has emerged from the council's deliberations bears little relation to those laudable aims. It allows merchants to keep doling out plastic bags, fee-free, so long as they do what many of them are already doing, which is to accept plastic bags for recycling, sell reusable bags and post signs encouraging people to use them. That doesn't give business owners any incentive to stop handing out plastic bags to customers, and it does nothing to roll back the number of plastic bags threatening the environment. If anything, it will encourage even greater use of paper bags, despite the fact that paper bags are more expensive for consumers. (The cost of both kinds of "free" bags is hidden in higher food prices). If the council's proposal becomes law, the most it will accomplish is to ratify a status quo that is clearly unacceptable.

Environmental advocates are rightly asking how a law that started out with such good intentions could have gone so wrong, especially considering how easily Baltimore might have followed the District of Columbia's example. The D.C. city council recently passed legislation imposing a 5-cent fee for customers using plastic bags, and directing the proceeds to a fund dedicated to cleaning up the city's polluted Anacostia River.

Washington's bag fee isn't excessive, many low-income families already are accustomed to bringing their own reusable bags to shop, and proponents of the measure worked hard to win the support of both consumers and store owners -- one retail food chain gave away some 200,000 free, reusable bags to help customers make the transition. Since the District's law went into effect Jan. 1, plastic bag use there has been cut in half.

By contrast, the measure now before Baltimore's City Council is such a mishmash of concessions to merchants, bag manufacturers and other interests that it is virtually meaningless. Gone are the fees that would have nudged shoppers to change their habits; also gone are the incentives from store owners that would have helped customers make the transition. There's been no public information campaign to win consumers and businesses over to the idea. Store owners can encourage customers to cut back on or recycle their plastic bags, but many do that already. And though the measure provides some modest penalties for violators, there's no mechanism for enforcing it.

That should be a clue that council members aren't really serious about cleaning up this problem. Washington's law doesn't depend on enforcement because it aims to effect voluntary changes in people's behavior. But Baltimore's proposal doesn't give people any incentive to change, nor does it provide any real penalty for carrying on just as before. As a result, very little is likely to change, except that council members will now be able to boast that they addressed an important environmental hazard -- and then did absolutely nothing to fix it.

Readers respond

Isn't this why we have littering laws? I can't tell you how many times I've been at a stop light only to see the car in front of me toss out their fast food bag into the street then drive off. Or kids walking down the street and just tossing their soda cans or Snapple bottles. The fact is, the residents of this city were raised to be trashy and to litter, yet now you want a bag law? How about enforcing the litter law!

Phillip Tompkins

Bravo, Phillip. I agree, the city should enforce litter laws instead of allowing people to throw their soda cans, chicken bones and other trash on the street without penalty.


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