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Plastic bag ban proposed for Baltimore County retailers

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John Lee
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Rob Frier with the Baltimore County Sierra Club picks up plastic bags along Reisterstown Road in Owings Mills.

Baltimore County may follow other jurisdictions like Baltimore City and ban single-use plastic bags at the checkout counter. The Baltimore County — Bring Your Own Bag Act — legislation was introduced Tuesday night by Councilman Izzy Patoka, a Democrat. Patoka represents District 2, which includes Pikesville. It would ban retailers from offering plastic bags beginning Nov. 1, 2023.

“Plastic is nor great for our future. It’s been a menace to the environment,” Patoka said.

Under the legislation, retailers can offer paper or reusable bags but must charge customers at least 10 cents each.

Some grocery retailers, like Trader Joe’s in Towson, already distribute paper bags to customers. Big box retailers like Walmart and the Catonsville HMart, an international grocery chain give customers single-use plastic bags at the checkout counter.

There are exceptions under the proposed rules in Baltimore County. People who receive food benefits such as from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program would not be charged for any bags, whether paper or reusable bags.

Baltimore County residents use almost 1 million plastic bags each day collectively in a region with roughly 850,000 people, according to the Greater Baltimore Group of the Sierra Club.

Proponents of a ban on plastic bags say Baltimore County residents are filling up landfills and trashing coastlines.

“What we’re trying to do is change behavior,” Patoka, the councilman who sponsored the bill said.

Newly elected Councilman Mike Ertel, a Democrat who represents District 6, which includes Towson, is a cosponsor of the legislation.

"There are bags everywhere," Ertel said. "They're in trees. This year for the first time I think that I can ever remember as a boater, I saw bags floating in the middle of the Chesapeake (Bay)."

The county council plans to hold a public hearing on the legislation Jan. 31 at 4 p.m. and a final vote is scheduled on Feb. 6. Both meetings are open to the public in-person and online.

Republican Councilman David Marks, who represents District 5, which includes Middle River, also is a cosponsor of the legislation. He said last month that he would support a plastic bag ban.

“I represent a waterfront district that is oriented around the quality of the Chesapeake Bay,” Marks said. “We have an increased volume of plastic bags that are going into our tributaries, but also helping to lead to an accumulation in our landfill.”

Council Chairman Julian Jones, a Democrat, expects the proposed legislation to be changed. Jones is not yet sold on retailers charging a dime for a reusable bag.

"How did we get to 10 cents for paper, I'm not sure," Jones said. "I'm not totally dug in but I have some concerns about the charge."

In a statement after the legislation was introduced, County Executive Johnny Olszewski signaled he might not like the reusable bag cost .

"I encourage council members to carefully consider impacts on our families, including fee reductions and preserving protections put in place for low income residents," Olszewski said.

He added his administration is "preparing to provide free, reusable bags for residents."

Baltimore City’s plastic bag ban went into effect October 2021 but it took more than 15 years after city council members initially proposed it. Retailers are required to charge customers at least 5 cents for a paper bag. But the Baltimore City plastic bag ban has one notable exception, plastic bags thicker than 4 mils are permitted.

Which means the average shopper of the Canton neighborhood Target can still purchase a single-use plastic bag that’s simply thicker than a typical bag.

There’s a cost passed down to consumers when plastic bags are banned, according to Zachary Taylor, the director of the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance which represents the industry and lobbies against ban bans.

Low income residents are hit with the cost of paying more for reusable bags or paying a fee Taylor said during an interview in April 2021.

“They’re the ones that are going to be spending a dollar or two every time they forget their bags,” Taylor said. “And that can add up pretty quickly.”

But the goal is to change behavior for future generations to thrive, officials said.

“If we want things to be right by the generation that follows my generation and the generation that follows the next and so on, we’ve got to continually and incrementally and vigilantly do things that are right for our environment,” Patoka said.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2
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