In 'bag war,' studies clash on plastic sack litter

No. 1 trash item in streams, or less than 1 percent overall?

  • Trash trap run by Anacostia Watershed Society on Nash Run has collected fewer plastic bags as a share of all debris trapped since the District of Columbia started charging a nickel for each disposable paper or plastic merchandize bag.
Trash trap run by Anacostia Watershed Society on Nash Run has… (Kenneth K. Lam, 2011 )
June 11, 2013|Tim Wheeler

As Baltimore City Council grapples once again with whether to levy a small fee on plastic and paper shopping bags, groups on both sides of the policy debate already are tossing out conflicting information on whether fees work, and even whether single-use sacks constitute a significant litter problem or not.

Councilman Brandon Scott introduced a bill Monday that would levy a 25-cent fee on plastic and paper disposable shopping bags.  He says he plans to reduce the proposed fee to 10 cents, with the revenues it could generate intended for helping underwrite municipal parks and recreation.

Environmentalists say plastic bags are a problem, and fees help.  They point to the Anacostia River watershed in the Washington area.  It's a badly degraded river in another heavily urbanized area like Baltimore, where stream banks are cluttered with trash.  The Anacostia and Baltimore's harbor, in fact, are so badly littered that the Environmental Protection Agency has taken the rare step of ordering  the municipal and county governments responsible for each to reduce the tide of trash fouling those two watersheds.

The District of Columbia responded in 2010 with a nickel fee on plastic and paper bags, and Montgomery County followed suit in 2012. Both jurisdictions have reported their retailers are handing out fewer single-use merchandise bags since they started charging for them. 

On the ground, the Anacostia Watershed Society says it has documented less litter in Nash Run, a northeast DC stream where the group installed a trash trap in 2009, just before the bag fee took effect.  Its volunteers also tend and clean out the trap on a regular basis.  The number of bags retrieved as a share of the overall weight of debris removed from the trap kept growing for several months after the fee took effect. But after June of that year, the number has been trending down since, according to Trash-Free Maryland, a group that's pushed unsuccessfully for statewide bag fees this year.

Likewise, the Alice Ferguson Foundation, which runs stream cleanups throughout the Potomac River watershed, reported a 50% drop in plastic bags recovered in Montgomery County in the year after the county began charging a nickel for disposable shopping bags.

On the other side, the American Progressive Bag Alliance, a group of plastic bag manufacturers, says its products make up a tiny share of the overall litter problem. For support, it points to a report by Environmental Resources Planning LLC, a Gaithersburg, MD consulting firm that claims to be the only one in the United States focusing on litter-related field research and surveys.  It touts its work as done by professional staff, while pointing out that most surveys by nonprofit groups were done by volunteers.

ER Planning says it handled Keep America Beautiful's 2009 national litter survey, which found that plastic bags of all types made up just 0.6 percent of all the stuff seen along the roadside. More limited surveys from Florida to Canada have found bags make up no more than 2 percent of all litter, the company says.

The Anacostia Watershed Society counters that roadside litter is different in makeup from what's seen along stream banks, and different again from what's found floating, sunken and washed up along more open water bodies.  According to a survey done by contractors for the group, 47 percent of the litter counted in Anacostia streams were plastic bags, the number one item.  Paper is the top litter item usually found along roads, the group says, while food wrappers seemed to be predominant along the Anacostia's tidal shores.

Baltimore's data are more limited, but a 2008 tally of trash and debris collected at the mouth of the Jones Falls, where it enters the harbor, found that a little more than half of it was "natural" - leaves, tree and bush branches and other plant material. The 58,000 plastic bags came in a distant fourth to cigarette butts (more than 1 million), plastic bottles (189,000) and foam cups (160,000).

Another, somewhat cruder tally came from the mouth of Harris Creek in Canton, where a "trash wheel" operated for a while.  It collected more than 17 tons of trash and debris in the first five months of 2010, or more than 3 tons a month.  Sticks, leaves and other plant material made up about 40 percent of the volume, with the remainder plastic (primarily bottles and bags), foam cups or containers and cigarette butts with "small but significant" amounts of aluminum cans and paper litter.

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