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Ditching plastic bags debated in Baltimore County

Baltimore County Council members met to discuss a proposed plastic bag ban on January 31, 2023.
John Lee
Baltimore County Council members met to discuss a proposed plastic bag ban on January 31, 2023.

People who want Baltimore County businesses to be barred from using plastic bags told the County Council Tuesday that the bags are a scourge on the environment by fouling waterways and overloading landfills.

Opponents of the proposed bag ban bill countered that it would put an undue burden on businesses and shoppers alike.

Multiple amendments are expected to be proposed for the controversial legislation before a vote, which is scheduled for Monday, Feb. 6.

About 20 people spoke on the legislation at Tuesday’s public hearing, including Nicole Youse, who owns Crossroads Bistro in Sparrows Point in Eastern Baltimore County.

Youse asked that restaurants be exempt from a plastic bag ban. She said she used to use paper bags until an irate customer stormed into the restaurant and caused a scene.

“Over what?” Youse asked. “The fact that her soup spilled, her container had leaked and her fries created some moisture and grease, and that caused a paper bag to destruct and her food to land all over the back of her very expensive car.”

Youse paid to have the customer’s car cleaned.

“We honestly cannot allow our customers to bring their own bags due to the fact that cross-contamination that may result in food-borne illness and we would be blamed,” Youse said.

But proponents of the legislation warned that plastic bags are doing enormous damage in local waterways and landfills.

“They clog storm drains, they get caught in trees, they’re just everywhere in huge numbers,” said Andrew Miller, a county resident and a Geography and Environmental Systems professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “They harm wildlife and aquatic life, not only in streams and wetlands, but in the Chesapeake Bay and the world’s oceans.”

The legislation would ban retailers from offering plastic bags beginning Nov. 1, 2023.

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

There would be exceptions. For instance, 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.

The 10 cent charge for paper bags is being challenged.

“It is regressive,” said Zachary Taylor, director of the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance. “It will hurt the poorest families who are already struggling with inflation the most.”

Sarah Price, a lobbyist for the Maryland Retailers Association, countered that charging the 10 cent fee is the “sweet spot” for businesses.

“As the businesses are being forced to transition to this more expensive material, they’re able to recoup the cost from that,” Price told the council.

The bill’s sponsor, District 2 Democrat Izzy Patoka, said changing it to a 5 cent fee is being discussed.

County Executive Johnny Olszewski has signaled he might not like the 10 cent 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 in a statement Jan. 3, the day the legislation was introduced.

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

District 5 Republican Councilman David Marks and District 6 Democratic Councilman Mike Ertel have signed on in support of Patoka’s bill, meaning one more vote is needed on the seven-member council to pass it and send it to Olszewski for approval.

District 7 Republican Todd Crandell made it clear Tuesday he will be voting no on the legislation as proposed.

“I think this is a huge overstep in government, into the private lives of retailers and consumers and their relationship that they have with each other,” Crandell said.

He will be offering an amendment that would do away with the 10 cent paper bag fee.

But Councilman Ertel said that the point of the fee is to drive behavior, so people will use their own bags.

“We see a lot of people who go to a convenience store and order and get a soda and a pack of gum and they’re getting a bag,” Ertel said. “And then they toss it on the parking lot immediately.”

Baltimore City has had a plastic bag ban, with a notable exception for thicker plastic bags, in place since October 2021. Retailers are required to charge customers at least 5 cents for a paper bag.

Adam Lindquist, the vice president of programs & environmental initiatives for Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, told the County Council that since the city’s ban on plastic bags took effect, there has been a 63% reduction in plastic bags in area waterways.

“It’s time for the county to do its part so we can eliminate that other 37%,” Lindquist said.

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