Students want a ‘bag bill’ in Md. this time

Now under consideration in the Maryland General Assembly is a bill that aims to reduce waste from disposable plastic or paper bags by charging a 10-cent fee per bag for customers who request the bags at grocery stores or other retail establishments in the state.


Arundel High School students created a mural in 2014 out of recycled clay (via Facebook)

Similar bills, which would either ban or tax the use of disposable plastic or paper bags, have failed six times already in the state legislature, including last year, when it received a unanimous unfavorable report from the House Environment and Transportation committee.

State Senator Victor Ramirez, a Democrat from Prince George’s County, is sponsoring this year’s version of the legislation in the Senate. Customers who request paper bags at the cash register would have to pay a 10-cent fee per bag, and plastic bags would be banned outright. He hopes this measure would discourage people from using plastic or paper bags, thereby reducing the amount of litter on Maryland’s streets and pollution in the state’s waterways.

“Different jurisdictions have put a fee on plastic bags, and that has helped,” he told the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs committee. “If I go to a 7-11 and buy a bag of Dorito’s or some gum, it’s a habit, and sometimes they’ll give you two bags.”

The bill can be expected to bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars to the state, based on a nonpartisan fiscal and policy note attached to the bill. And retailers would retain between 5 and 7 cents from each fee collected, savings they may be able to pass onto consumers, since the cost for retailers of these bags is undoubtedly less than 5 cents each.

Students from Arundel High School in Gambrills, which has been designated a Green School by the Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education, took a field trip to the state house yesterday to talk with lawmakers about several pieces of legislation that have drawn their interest, including House Bill 31, cross filed as Senate Bill 57, the so-called “bag bill.”

One student from Arundel High School, Jacob Baumgart, who also works as a cashier at a Walgreen’s store, testified at the February 2 Senate committee hearing in support of SB 57. Seek to about 3:37 in the video, here, to see his testimony.

Violet Smith, 11, also testified in support of the bill, saying she has spent time cleaning up a park near her home and can’t help but notice the risk plastic bags pose to Maryland wildlife. “The trash never stopped slowing down the stream,” she said. “If we do not clean the trash, baby birds die from being suffocated and drown in the plastic bags … and deer get bits of plastic bags stuck in their intestines as they try to eat from the berry bushes.”

There is considerable opposition to the bill, mainly from business groups. “It’s a tax,” said Ellen Valentino, a lobbyist representing gas stations. She said that low-income people walk to gas stations to buy food and diapers and, for them, the fee would be a burden.

But would it work?

According to the Ferguson Foundation, which hopes to achieve a trash-free Potomac River, encouraging people to use reusable bags by charging a fee for using plastic bags in the District of Columbia and in Montgomery County has helped.

In Washington, since a 5-cent fee took effect, there has been a 60-percent reduction in the use of single-use bags, the foundation reports. In the District, 83 percent of residents and 90 percent of businesses are said to be either supportive of or indifferent to the fee, and the amount of plastic bags recovered from cleanups has been reduced by 72 percent since the program began.

Mr Baumgart, an 11th grader, said he has seen Walgreen’s customers take bags for single-item purchases, which comprise the majority of transactions at his register. But he has also seen customers take great pride in going out of their way to avoid using plastic bags.

But others questioned whether such views are representative of Maryland businesses, in general, and whether Maryland’s residents and environment would be served by such a fee.

In certain communities, people demand bags, such as for African Americans over the age of, about, 12. “I’d like to see pollution under control as much as anyone, but in some communities, if it’s in a bag, that means I bought it,” testified Mike Little, who was speaking on behalf of several people in the communities of southern Prince George’s County.

He added that if, as Mr Ramirez suggests, education is the key, Maryland should approach this problem through education campaigns rather than by taxing bags. “If we want to change a behavior, then we should address what that behavior is, not create a tax associated with it.”

Indeed, Maryland’s environmental education programs have won international acclaim, including an award from the World Future Council of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, as Voxitatis reported in October.

Abigail Turner, the manager for government affairs at the American Forest and Paper Association, which represents paper manufacturers, said the bill would require consumers to pay a “penalty” for choosing paper. This would be counterproductive, she suggests, because paper is both a highly recyclable and highly recycled material.

“The EPA said 65.4 percent of all paper consumed in the US in 2013 was recovered through recycling,” she testified. “The amount has exceeded 63 percent for the last six years. People who rely on public transit can’t really be expected to bring reusable bags into every store,” and they should have the option, she suggested, of using paper bags without paying a fee.

A few facts about plastic waste

Plastics make up almost 13 percent of the municipal solid waste stream, but the vast majority of that waste stream doesn’t come from plastic bags, according to the EPA. As a result, banning plastic bags may not reduce the volume or weight of the municipal waste stream.

Some cities, including Dallas, Texas, and Fort Collins, Colorado, have repealed well-intentioned bag taxes after determining that they weren’t working to reduce the amount of litter. (Here’s a summary of state laws from the National Council of State Legislatures.)

In Dallas, few people were happy with what had come to be called the “nickel nuisance tax,” because it gave the government a “nanny state” feel, said city councilman Rick Callahan.

And in Fort Collins, the fee just wasn’t effective. “We heard our citizens and responded: the disposable bags ordinance is not the way to go,” said Bruce Hendee, chief sustainability officer for the city just north of Denver.

“We will need to think hard about how we can prevent waste from being generated in the first place, look even more closely at finding ways of improving our recycling and organics composting that are convenient for people, and possibly explore further prohibitions on types of materials that really shouldn’t be going into the waste stream,” the city’s senior environmental planner said.

In San Jose, California, on the other hand, when the city imposed a bag fee like the one being proposed in Maryland, people stopped using plastic bags by about 90 percent and saved the city an estimated $1 million a year in maintenance costs for the city’s drainage systems, which were less cluttered without the plastic bags.

Many states encourage recycling by charging a refundable deposit for plastic bottles at the point of sale. One committee member suggested a similar amendment to SB 57, saying the purpose of the bill was not based on revenue but on protecting the environment.

Bottom line: Find a way to reduce pollution from plastic bags and improve the habitats for wildlife in Maryland. Such measures have accomplished this everywhere they’ve been enacted, and that’s something everyone, including Ms Smith, the 11-year-old who cleans up neighborhood parks with her sister in her spare time, would very much like to see.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.