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After 9 Attempts, City Council Successfully Passes Plastic Bag Ban

Rich Pedroncelli/AP

The Baltimore City Council passed a plastic bag ban Monday evening, meaning those plastic bags found at the grocery store or your favorite takeout place will disappear next year. 

The bill bans plastic bags in Baltimore outright. It also places a city surcharge of five cents on other bags, such as paper or compostable, so a shopper who buys groceries and uses a store-offered paper bag will pay five cents for that bag. 

Businesses behind the point of sale, which include grocery stores, convenience stores, pharmacies, restaurants and gas stations, will receive four cents. The council, which does not have the authority to direct revenue from the five cent surcharge, will lobby to direct the remaining penny toward environmental purposes. 

Councilman Bill Henry, who first introduced the bill in June, said he was thrilled it finally passed.

"I'm very happy that Baltimore has finally joined the ranks of cities, states and countries all around the world who have come to recognize the fact that single use plastic and really single use bags are not a good thing for their environment and that we should be trying to reduce their proliferation," he said.

Henry, a Democrat, first proposed that people who receive benefits from federal food assistance programs, such as SNAP and WIC be exempt from the five cent fee, but that language was written out of the bill as it made its way through committee. The original bill also proposed that 4 cents of the surcharge go to the city and a penny to businesses; local retailers successsfully lobbied to flip the numbers. 

The bill will go into effect one year after it becomes law, which will happen when Mayor Jack Young, a Democrat, either signs the bill or allows three city council meetings to pass without signing it. Henry said he hopes Young signs the bill outright.

Kroger, the nation’s largest grocery chain, said earlier this year that it would phase out plastic bags by 2025. ALDI, an international grocer, has never offered single-use plastic shopping bags.

Many local governments, including Washington, D.C. and Montgomery County, have passed similar legislation. Baltimore’s bill is nearly identical to one passed in Portland, Oregon earlier this year.

City lawmakers tried and failed to ban or highly reduce plastic bag use eight other times in the last decade. 

In 2014, the council voted 11 - 1, with two abstaining members, to ban plastic grocery bags, but then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake vetoed the measure introduced by former council member James Kraft. As a councilman, now-City Council President Brandon Scott introduced a failed 2013 bill that would have charged shoppers a fee of 10 cents per plastic bag.

Several council members have called the current council its most progressive class ever. The council almost unanimously passed the bill; Councilwoman Danielle McCray cast the sole vote against it. She said she supports the bill's environmental purpose, but could not support the 5 cent city surcharge.

"It's an unnecessary and regressive tax on low income residents or working families on a fixed income," McCray said. "I know that pennies add up, I know that dollars add up."

Henry said that he understands where McCray is coming from and that he hopes reidents, low-income or not, take advantage of the "myriad of opportuntites to have access to reusable bags."

"It has long been our expectation that if we were able to pass a version of this in which some money came back to the city, that the administration would use some of it to purchase reusable bags and make them available freeof charge for anyone for whom the five cents adds up," Henry said.

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.