By Hugh Garbrick
Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS — Plastic carryout bags would essentially be a thing of the past in Maryland if a bill in the General Assembly gathers enough lawmakers’ votes.
The bill would ban plastic carryout bags at the “point of sale” next year in July, require stores to charge customers a 10 cent fee per “durable” carryout bag—like paper bags—money that retailers would keep, and create a “Single-Use Products Workgroup,” according to a state legislative analysis.
At a bill hearing Feb. 11 in the House Environment and Transportation Committee, Del. Jerry Clark (R-Calvert and St. Mary’s counties) asked the bill’s sponsor, Del. Brooke Lierman (D-Baltimore), whether paper bags are better for the environment than plastic bags.
Lierman said paper bags are better, though the goal of her bill is to encourage bringing reusable bags to stores, limiting overall waste.
“You don’t go to the store without forgetting your wallet, and if we move this forward we won’t go to the stores without remembering our bags because people don’t want to pay (a bag fee),” Lierman said.
During testimony, Lierman presented a 2019 survey that shows 88.2 percent of Prince George’s County and 76.6 of Howard County shoppers—who are not charged a bag fee — take disposable bags; and only 41.8 percent of Montgomery County shoppers, who are charged 5 cents, take disposable bags.
The bill is estimated to cost the state $71,700, which is the price of Maryland’s Department of Labor hiring an assistant attorney general in the program’s first year to develop regulations and communicate with counties and industry associations, according to the state legislative analysis.
The ban only applies to plastic carryout bags at the “point of sale,” like at grocery store checkouts; bags not banned are ones used for: packaging fruits and vegetables, wrapping meats and frozen foods, containing flowers, bagging bakery items, delivering newspapers, covering dry-cleaned clothes and carrying medicine from pharmacists, according to a state legislative analysis.
Lierman’s bill, House Bill 209, has 43 other legislators signed on, and Sen. Malcolm Augustine (D-Prince George’s County) is sponsoring identical Senate Bill 313.
Similar bills failed to pass in 2015 and 2016, but Augustine told Capital News Service he has “done his homework” and expects the ban to become law. Augustine’s legislation is scheduled to be heard in a committee Thursday.
Recently, Baltimore issued a ban on plastic bags that is scheduled to go into effect in January, according to a statement from Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who supports Lierman’s bill.
Other jurisdictions also regulate carryout bags: Besides Montgomery County’s 5 cent fee per carryout bag, Howard County plans to implement a fee in October and the cities of Takoma Park, Westminster and Town of Chestertown all regulate single-use bags, according to the state legislative analysis.
Counties could no longer collect the revenue from bag fees under this state bill; Montgomery County collects about $2.5 million annually, which goes toward stormwater management and water quality improvements, according to the legislative analysis.
Testifying on Tuesday, legislative director for Maryland Association of Counties Natasha Mehu wants an amendment that would “preserve” county programs like Montgomery County’s “Water Quality Protection Charge Fund.”
Mehu said the association is not in favor of the bill unless a “portion” of the proposed 10-cent fee per “durable” carryout bag is left for county programs.
Howard County’s planned fee on disposable plastic bags would charge consumers 5 cents per plastic bag, 1 cent going to retailers and the rest to the county, according to a news release from the county’s council.
The revenue would go into the “Disposable Plastics Reduction Fund,” a part of which would provide reusable bags to “vulnerable individuals,” according to county legislation CB64-2019.
Maryland Hunger Solutions director Michael Wilson testified Tuesday, voicing concern that the bill has a “disparate” impact on low-income consumers.
Wilson said Hunger Solutions would support the legislation with an amendment that either exempts or creates a fund for people in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—also known as food stamps—to reduce the fee’s potential impact on low-income consumers.
Maryland Retailers Association president Cailey Locklair said they support the bill because a statewide ban is preferable to multiple county bans, which are burdensome to “multijurisdictional” retailers.
Locklair brought out a paper bag during Tuesday’s bill hearing, telling delegates that retailers would not turn a profit off of the 10 cent ”durable” bag fee.
“Our retailers want one law that they can comply with that is straightforward for consumers in the state,” Locklair testified.
Locklair told Capital News Service that the Maryland Retailers Association worked with the bill’s sponsors.
“One size fits all (legislation) can’t work for everyone, but we want to be at the table when this gets negotiated,” Locklair said.
J.S. Edwards LTD president Edward Steinberg testified in favor of the bill and said the plastic bags the men’s clothing store uses cost 45 cents while paper bags are $1.20.
“Bags, in price, can vary considerably. Another thing to consider is… it’s the face of your store, it’s your advertising,” Steinberg said.
Melvin Thompson testified against the bill on behalf of the Restaurant Association of Maryland.
Sitting next to Thompson was Eric King, co-owner of Sea King Seafood Markets in Ellicott City, who also testified against the bill.
King said plastic bag use should be “curbed,” but the bill has “some unintended consequences.”
“When you get steamed crabs, we put them in a brown paper bag. You get that paper bag in a plastic bag because 30 minutes later the steam and condensation from the crab has soaked through, and your crabs will be on the floor of your car,” King said.
The bill creates a civil penalty worth up to $500 for stores caught violating the plastic bag ban or failing to charge 10 cents per “durable” carryout bag, according to the state legislative analysis.
Currently, eight states ban disposable plastic bags: California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Delaware, Maine, Oregon, New York and Vermont, according to the legislative analysis.
“This bill is really a win for our consumers, a win for our state and local governments, a win for the environment and a win for our businesses,” Lierman said at Tuesday’s bill hearing.
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