Is the Latest Plastic Bag Ban Bill the Lucky #7?

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Will Baltimore's City Council finally pass a plastic bag ban bill? Bag litter estimated to be half of the trash that flows into Inner Harbor.
Will the Baltimore City Council finally pass a plastic bag ban bill? Bag litter is estimated to be half of the trash that flows into the Inner Harbor.

They’re everywhere. Flying in the wind, adorning trees and littering the Inner Harbor: plastic bags.  The flimsy bags even star in this hysterical Majestic Plastic Bag Mockumentary.

Hoping to combat Baltimore’s plastic bag litter, Councilmember Bill Henry recently submitted a plastic bag ban similar to the version Mayor Rawlings-Blake vetoed in December 2014. This bag bill is attempt #7.  If approved, Baltimore City’s stores and to-go food outlets would not be allowed to offer consumers plastic bags.

Henry thinks there is the political will this time to pass the ban. “We’re committed to ensuring this bill is a win-win for all stakeholders,” he said. “This time, it’s a well-organized process intended to hear everyone’s point-of-view and to work together for a smooth launch. The bill’s intent is to motivate citizens to choose reusable bags and to confront Baltimore’s litter problem head-on with a proven solution.”

Three reasons this ban may pass:

  1. Plastic bag bans or fee-for-bag policies work – just ask Washington D.C. and Montgomery County: Julia Lawson, Trash Free Maryland’s Director explains, “DC’s record-keeping has been great. Since DC implemented a 5¢ per bag fee in 2010, three-quarters of citizens report using fewer plastic bags. Businesses report purchasing half as many bags and best of all, trash cleanup data reveal volunteers pulled 60 percent less bags from the Anacostia River.”
  1. Baltimore City got busted: Under the Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency just approved and handed Baltimore a trash ticket of sorts. So much litter flows off Baltimore’s streets and straight into the Inner Harbor and then into the Chesapeake Bay, that our town was put on a trash diet. The pollution diet’s intent is to force Baltimore to reduce urban trash run-off. Or else.
  1. Baltimoreans want a cleaner Charm City: 75 percent of residents rate Baltimore’s cleanliness as fair or poor. We can do better to make Charm City more charming. 

Did you know that disposable plastic bags didn’t even show up in stores until 1982? Last year alone, at least 500 billion bags were consumed worldwide. Made from the petroleum-based chemical polyethelene, plastic bags are used on average for just 12 minutes. Yet, plastic bags stay on our planet forever because they don’t biodegrade, but instead break down into little bits of confetti-like plastic. Though most grocers offer bag recycling, only 5 to 14 percent actually get recycled into plastic planks or bottles. You can argue that we collectively get a failing grade on trash disposal when you see the Texas-sized and plastic-filled Garbage Patches in our world’s oceans. Sadly, fish, whales, sharks, and birds eat the plastic bits.

It seems safe to say this 30-year plastic bag experiment isn’t working, which may explain why many countries (Ireland, Denmark, parts of India), U.S. states (Hawaii, California, parts of N. Carolina) and major cities (San Jose, Washington DC, Portland) have either banned plastic bags or regulated a per-use fee.

Baltimore’s proposed bag ban isn’t perfect, as Johnathan Berard points out. “We’re supportive of the bill to ban the bag, but the point isn’t to push people to use paper bags,” said Berard, Blue Water Baltimore’s Senior Manager for Advocacy and Public Policy. “The best option for our waterways and environment is for people to use reusable bags.”

To that point, Julie Lawson of Trash Free Maryland, a coalition of environmental and community groups, along with the newly-elected Delegate Brooke Lierman, plan to submit a bill in the 2015 Maryland General Assembly to ban plastic bags and also to charge fees for paper bags statewide.

And herein lies the tough part: changing us.

Consumers perceive plastic bags as free, but in reality stores have baked the 2-cent-per-plastic-bag cost into their business costs. Paper bags may seem like a better option because they’re recyclable, but it still takes a lot of trees and energy to produce paper bags.  Plus, paper is more expensive for stores to buy costing an extra 2¢ to 6¢. Some also worry the extra cost will get passed down to consumers. 

The truth is neither plastic nor paper are good options for carting the stuff we buy. It’s time for us to walk the “we want clean streets” talk and BYOBag. If and when it’s cool to tote our stuff in reusables, we’ll find the majesty of the Inner Harbor, Jones Falls and Gwynns Falls, in their naturally occurring elements, instead of plastic bags. 

Laurel Peltier
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Laurel Peltier

Laurel writes the environmental GreenLaurel column every other Thursday in the Baltimore Fishbowl. A graduate of UVA's MBA program, she spends her time with her family and making "all things green" interesting.
Laurel Peltier
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2 COMMENTS

    • Nick- Gave this some thought and wanted to share that many people I talked with about this bag bill said that in the current environment, fees wouldn’t fly. I think maybe they need to hear from us because I think fees gives the bag value, pays stores for the bags, and builds a green fund to make some positive changes. Stream clean-ups, giving away reusable bags, marketing, PR, TV ads and education about trash and bags has a better chance of happening is there are dedicate funds. I think I’ll write my city councilmember!

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