Councilman Henry picks back up on push to ban plastic bags in Baltimore City

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Photo by Jackie, via Flickr

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.

In Maryland, Montgomery County became the first jurisdiction to impose a bag fee in 2012, and Howard County got the green light to do so from the General Assembly this legislative session.

Takoma Park, Chestertown and, as of this week, Westminster, are the only Maryland cities with outright bans in place.

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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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in CityLab, Slate, Baltimore City Paper, DCist and elsewhere.
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3 COMMENTS

  1. The city is in shambles, nobody is coming downtown, the police are in disarray, and our kids are being murdered in record numbers, and this is what we are worried about. Plastic friggin bags. Get a life and where the f are your priorities.

  2. Let’s ban what we see, but let’s NOT fix the real problems… Banning plastic bags (plastic period) will force businesses to change to tree products, as tree products are the only viable alternative at this time… And, according to the United Nations Environment Report 2020 the number one environmental challenge the world faces today is “Deforestation”, deforestation will cause the death of over 1,000 species this year alone & threatening millions.

    Second, tree products are heavier than plastic products, hence causing a rise in air pollution to transport these products. Air pollution is a major factor in the deaths of over 9 million people worldwide per year (16% of annual deaths & rising).

    The 10 most threatened species on our planet today, 8 are land animals threatened because of deforestation (most of which is caused by our need for living & farming).

    We are trying to legislate what we see, but because we do NOT “see” the deforestation of our lands every day like we see the trash on our streets & waterways we are attempting to legislate one problem & helping to cause a bigger one!

    Please, someone, educate these legislators as whomever they are listening to now is NOT taking the time to learn all the facts.

    If our legislators invested as much time & energy in helping the development of alternative products, such as hemp, bamboo, etc. that they invest in banning plastics, we could develop an industry whose time has come & help save our planet!

  3. This is a common sense solution to the broader problem of plastic toxicity in our environment. Yes, as adults, we can chew gum and walk at the same time: environmental protection and the many other challenges we face can be surmounted together. In fact, they have to, as issues regarding the environment, urban blight, poverty, and crime are interrelated. Attention to one doesn’t take away from the other – they compliment each other. Banning plastic bags does not default to tree-based products. This is a red herring and arguments supporting this contention are based on inaccurate information. Getting rid of largely single-use plastics is the easiest, simplest, most affordable, and most effective measure that benefits all of us.

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