Years after Stephanie Rawlings-Blake vetoed legislation banning stores from handing out plastics bags in Baltimore City, Councilman Bill Henry is giving it another go.
A proposal announced by Henry’s office in a media advisory Thursday would ban stores from handing out plastic bags at the register, while also setting a 5-cent fee on other kinds of bags. It would also fine retailers $250 for the first offense and more for subsequent violations.
The bill, to be introduced at the Baltimore City Council’s full meeting Monday, attempts to throw a bone to merchants who would face increased costs offering alternative materials to plastic. As written, it would give retailers 1 cent of every 5 cent surcharge, with the rest going to the city’s general fund.
The bill also exempts certain bags for certain uses, including fresh fish, meat and poultry, unpackaged fruits, confections, cheese and baked goods, items sold at farmers’ markets and more.
K.C. Kelleher, legislative director for the 4th District councilman, said for Baltimore, “this is the ninth time that plastic bag legislation has been introduced, and we’re hoping it’ll be the last.”
However, she fully expects the bill will be amended in committee after it’s introduced Monday.
Henry’s office has worked with advocates on the bill’s language since the fall. Reps from those organizations and the City Office of Sustainability, as well as United Workers, are set to join Henry at a press conference Monday before the council meets.
Kelleher said the bill stands a better chance of passing than the version that Rawlings-Blake vetoed five years ago. That legislation, proposed by then-Councilman James Kraft, began as a proposed 5-cent fee but was amended and morphed into an outright ban. The council approved it 11-1 anyway. Rawlings-Blake said she vetoed it because of how it had been altered, arguing the public didn’t have enough time to weigh in before the council sent it to her desk.
“We’re coming out of the gate with something that people were already supportive of then, and we’re hoping they’re supportive of now,” Kelleher said.
The proposal is likely to face some opposition from retailers.
Cailey Locklair Tolle, president of the Maryland Retailers Association, said some of the trade group’s members, particularly grocers, would be open to imposing a fee if plastic is banned. However, paper is “two to three times more expensive than plastic,” and they would need a larger split than 1 cent of every 5-cent surcharge to cover the added costs.
She said she’s reached out to Henry (though Kelleher said they haven’t heard from her) and plans to engage council members about the proposal’s terms. “We’re gonna try to find consensus where we can.”
Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young isn’t supporting it from the outset, preferring to wait until it “works itself through the council process,” mayor’s office spokesman Lester Davis said. “We’re gonna respect their process, let them work their magic and then we’ll see what lands on the mayor’s desk.”
Angela Haren, Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper for Blue Water Baltimore, said the ban and fee on other bags would help to improve the health of Baltimore’s waterways, reducing the amount of trash that inevitably makes its way from streets into streams and the harbor.
Beyond physically hampering wildlife like turtles and birds that get wrapped up in plastic bags, the material breaks down into microplastics that get ingested by fish and pollute the food chain, she said.
Banning plastic while tacking on a fee “is meant to spur behavior change,” she said, nudging consumers to bring their own bags to the store.
Baltimore would join major cities like Washington D.C., Chicago, Boston, Seattle and others that have also banned plastic bags. California and New York have applied such bans statewide.
Tolle, of the Maryland Retailers Association, said it’s important for Baltimore to consider its ability to attract grocery stores, particularly given its concentration of food deserts lacking healthy options for residents. Imposing “costly measures” could “chase them away,” she warned.
Both Haren and Ashley Van Stone, executive director of Trash Free Maryland, said the council should consider altering the 80/20 split for how the 5-cent fee would be divided between the city and retailers. Lawmakers could give business a bigger cut given the added costs it imposes, particularly for businesses in low-income areas.
“Especially during a transitional period while we still need to expand education and drive the reuse culture of bringing your own bag, having it be more balanced would be good,” Van Stone said.
“We’re not really looking to burden anyone,” said Haren. “We’re just looking for a solution to eliminate the plastic entering our waterways.”
This story has been updated to reflect that Westminster lawmakers recently passed a plastic bag ban.
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