Legislators in Baltimore have tried and failed to ban or highly reduce plastic bag use eight times in the last decade. A plastic bag ban bill appeared on the City Council’s docket for the ninth time this summer, and because of a progressive council it could finally pass, according to Councilman Bill Henry, the bill’s lead sponsor.
In its current form, the bill bans plastic checkout bags at any retailer in Baltimore, like small grocers and clothing stores. Businesses could instead provide paper bags to customers, who would have to pay a 5-cent fee per bag. Four cents would go to city environmental efforts and the remaining penny would go to the business. People who pay with low-income food benefits, such as SNAP or WIC, would be exempt from the fee.
Many local governments, including Washington, D.C. and Montgomery County, have passed similar legislation, but Baltimore lawmakers have never been able to do the same. They came close in 2014: With the support of then-Council President, now-Mayor Jack Young, the council passed a plastic bag ban, but then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake vetoed it.
“This issue has been raised at least once each session in the last four different terms of the council,” Henry, a Democrat who represents northeast Baltimore, said after the bill’s public hearing Tuesday. “But this is a different council and this is a different mayor.”
Indeed, the bill is currently cosponsored by 11 out of 14 council members, including Council President Brandon Scott. Some of those sponsors are progressive first-term members, who replaced legislators who voted down similar bans.
“I believe this time, it will actually happen,” Henry said.
The speakers at Tuesday’s public hearing, including several small business owners, almost unanimously supported the idea of curbing plastic use. Many of those business owners, however, said they are not happy with the proposed distribution of the 5-cent fee.
“I completely agree with the ban. I love Mother Earth,” said Dennis Zorn, the owner of Eddie’s Market in Mount Vernon.
But paper bags cost him eight times as much as plastic bags, Zorn said, and receiving one penny per paper bag “is too much for us to absorb.”
Jerry Gordon, the owner of Eddie’s Market in Charles Village, agreed. If the ban’s current iteration goes into effect, he would have to raise prices, he said.
“I don't understand why, if the city is going to force me to spend more money, they're going to take a share of the money,” Gordon said.
The two grocers said they would support the bill if business owners got to keep the full 5-cent fee.
Henry said the council is discussing giving a larger portion of the fee to business owners or raising the amount of the fee “so that retailers can recoup more” while the city still receives some money for sustainability purposes.
Environmental activists throughout the city and state, including representatives from Trash Free Maryland, the National Aquarium and Baltimore Beyond Plastic, said the plastic bag ban is badly needed.
Mr. Trash Wheel, the trash interceptor that collects trash in the Inner Harbor, collects about 90,000 plastic bags every single year, said Adam Lindquist, director of the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore’s Healthy Harbor Initiative, which manages the trash wheel.
Those plastic bags are just a small portion of the plastic bags in Baltimore’s environment, he said, because many become stuck in trees.
Others “are neutrally buoyant, which means they float lower down in the water column and might float right past Mr. Trash Wheel,” Lindquist said.
He said banning plastic bags would be a step toward his organization’s goal of making the Inner Harbor safe for swimming and fishing.
The bill still has to gain the approval of the council’s Judiciary Committee before it can be considered by the full council. If the full council passes it, it could be signed into law at the earliest in October and would take effect one year later.