Montgomery County Executive Isiah "Ike" Leggett announced today he'll seek legislation to levy a nickel fee on every paper or plastic carryout bag dispensed by county retailers in a bid to reduce litter in the Washington suburb and encourage consumers to shop with their own reusable bags.
If approved by the County Council, Montgomery would follow the lead of the District of Columbia and not Baltimore in tacking a small fee on throwaway bags to discourage their use. Here in Charm City, after protests from grocers and bag manufacturers the City Council backed away from bills to ban or tax plastic bags and opted instead to encourage recycling them.
Baltimore may still see the nickel bag fee, though, and Montgomery wouldn't need to act if lawmakers in Annapolis adopt legislation that would apply a nickel-a-bag fee statewide. Tomorrow, (March 8), the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee is scheduled to review SB602, the "Clean the Streams and Beautify the Bay Act of 2011."
Like the District law, the Senate bill and its House compansion, HB1034, would require stores to charge a nickel for every disposable carryout bag provided to customers. Stores could keep a penny of every nickel to cover their costs, and could keep a second cent if they also offer their customers credit for bringing their own reusable bags for carrying away merchandise.
Environmentalists argue a throwaway bag fee is needed to reduce the litter that's choking urban waters like Baltimore's harbor and the Anacostia River in the Washington area. The Environmental Protection Agency has declared both watersheds impaired by trash, and city and county governments are on the hook to figure out how to stop the torrents of trash washed into and down streams after every rain.
The Anacostia Watershed Society says its trash surveys have found plastic bags the third most frequent litter item fished from the river and the most common type of detritus in the streams that feed into the river.
DC started charging 5 cents on every disposable shopping bag given customers there in January 2010. The fee raised about $2 million in revenue in its first year, earmarked for helping clean up the Anacoastia River. That's less than had been projected, but sponsors say what they really wanted was behavior change, and in that regard, estimates are that the number of bags consumed has dropped by 50 to 80 percent.
The state legislation could raise a lot more money. Legislative analysts cite Census estimates that there were 19,100 retail establishments in Maryland three years ago, and suggests that if each dispensed 10,000 bags annually, they'd raise $7.6 million in total revenue - with $1.9 million of it kept by the stores. The bulk of the fees collected by the state would go to the Chesapeake Bay Trust, a nonprofit organization that doles out grants to promote public awareness and participation in the bay cleanup effort.
Retailers and bag manufacaturers successfully fought off a similar measure last year, and can be expected to oppose it again this year. Retailers argue that the fee hurts their business by raising prices at a time when many Marylanders are still struggling economically. Plastic bag manufacturers have argued that voluntary recycling programs are the way to go.
But environmentalists point out that the disposable carryout bags handed out by stores aren't free. Retailers usually pay 2 to 5 cents per bag, they note, and based on bag use estimates developed elsewhere, the Anacostia Watershed Society figures the average Marylander gets 750 carryout bags a year, for which they're likely paying $15 to $37.50 a year. Reusable bags, by comparison, usually cost $1 to $3 each, and last up to two years.
If the statewide legislation fails again, that leaves the "plastic or paper" - or neither - issue to be hashed out locality by locality. Besides the bill introduced in Montgomery, there's legislation pending in Annapolis (HB661/SB721) that would enable Prince George's County - which like Montgomery shares responsibility for the Anacostia watershed - to impose a fee on disposable plastic bags in its borders.
(Baltimore Sun photos. Top: Reusable bag display in DC Safeway, 2010, by Barbara Haddock Taylor; Above: yellow plastic bag and fast-food cup litter Baltimore's Gwynns Falls, 2008, by Jed Kirschbaum)