Tell me about this bag fee.

The Clean the Streams and Beautify the Bay Act (SB602/HB1034) proposes to require shoppers in Maryland to pay five cents for each single-use plastic and paper bag they take from stores. The money raised from the fee is split between the store, the state, and the Chesapeake Bay Trust.

Why are we addressing bags?

Plastic bags make up a substantial proportion of trash in our region. A 2008 study in Washington, DC, found that a quarter of the trash in the Anacostia River, and half the trash in its tributaries, was plastic bags. While beverage containers, food wrappers, and other waste were also common, plastic bags are easily addressed because they are easily replaced with alternatives (reusable bags) or even unnecessary. (A bottle, on the other hand, is part of the product.)

We need to do something, and soon. The Anacostia River (with 80 percent of its watershed in Maryland) is so polluted that it was declared impaired for trash under the Clean Water Act. Baltimore Harbor is close to a similar designation.

If the trash studies find mostly plastic bags, why include paper bags too?

While currently most stores give out bags for free, they actually cost the store money to purchase. That cost is then added to the cost of the goods and passed on to the customer.

According to Safeway, paper bags cost about twice as much as plastic bags (five cents vs. two cents, on average). If plastic bags are the only target, customers will shift primarily to paper bags (as seen in San Francisco following their ban on plastic bags at large grocery stores), increasing the cost to the retailer.

Since the goal is to reduce the use of disposable bags with no negative impact on the store, both plastic and paper bags must be addressed.

The environmental impact of paper bags (in production, transportation, and recycling) is also not significantly better than that of plastic bags, even though littered paper bags do disintegrate in the environment (which is why non-degradable plastic bags are more common as pollution, while both types are commonly littered).

Why is the fee five cents, and not 20 cents (or higher)?

Five cents is closely tied to the cost of plastic and paper bags, as borne by the retailer. Charging that amount makes the cost of the bag more transparent to the consumer and allows them to make a more informed choice.

It’s also not necessary to use a higher fee. Washington, DC, uses a five-cent fee and saw bag use drop by 50 to 80 percent almost immediately. The nickel is enough to get the customer’s attention without being burdensome to most people.

Is the fee burdensome? Doesn’t it hurt the low-income?

It doesn’t have to. If a shopper always brings reusable bags and refuses a bag if s/he doesn’t need one, s/he never has to pay the fee. While reusable bags cost $1-3 in many stores (compared to the hidden cost of “free” bags of $15-37.50 yearly, as calculated by Anacostia Watershed Society), the revenue from the fee will help cover the cost of free bags for needy residents, distributed by the state. There are also other ways to get free bags to those who need them, including bag drives and distribution through food pantries and service organizations.

Bread for the City, a DC food pantry, has distributed tens of thousands of reusable bags to its clients. Those bags were donated by corporations, community members, and the District. Bread has subsequently bought fewer plastic bags for distributing its food, saving the organization several thousand dollars. Its clients prefer the cloth bags for their capacity, durability, and softer straps, making them easier to carry, and many clients bring their bags back each week.

Why not just exempt transactions using WIC or SNAP (food stamps)?

One grocery chain tried to fight DC’s proposed fee by telling public housing residents that the fee would hurt them. It backfired–the residents said those claims implied that they didn’t care about the environment and couldn’t make the choice.

Also, much effort has gone into making WIC and SNAP transactions appear more like cash transactions to reduce any stigma or embarrassment. An exemption would call attention to those customers.

Doesn’t this just raise money for the state? My taxes are high enough.

The goal of this bill is not to raise money, but to reduce the use of bags. (Ultimately, that will reduce the cost of litter pickup and other pollution mitigation currently borne by the state and jurisdictions. And that can reduce tax burden.)

DC’s Chief Financial Officer estimated that the fee would raise $3.5 million in the first year. In fact it only raised $2 million in 2010, because bag use declined so much more quickly than anticipated. This is a victory–fewer bags are making their way into the environment as litter.

The proceeds of the fee are divided between the store, the state, and the Chesapeake Bay Trust:

– The store keeps one cent of the fee to cover bookkeeping expenses. If the store offers a reusable bag credit program (giving the customer five cents back for bringing a reusable bag, as Giant and Target currently do), the store keeps two cents. This will help promote the consumer shift to reusable bags.

– A portion of the revenue is allocated to the Department of Human Resources, which is charged with purchasing reusable bags and distributing them for free to needy residents.

– The rest of the revenue is directed to the Chesapeake Bay Trust, which works to improve the quality of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries by offering competitive grants to municipalities, counties, and nonprofit organizations across the state. The Trust currently receives proceeds from the specialty license plate and other sources and is chartered by the General Assembly, but it is also independently managed, giving it some protection from budgetary fluctuations.

Why don’t we just ban bags?

Bans don’t give consumers a choice. While Kauai and Maui have banned bags, the state of Hawaii is still considering a fee.

Why don’t we just push recycling more?

We’ve had recycling for more than 20 years and the litter problem is only getting worse.

Americans consume 8 billion pounds of plastic bags every year. In 2006, 590 million pounds were recycled in the US and Canada, leaving over 7 billion pounds to be discarded. In 2009, 364 million pounds were recycled in the US and Canada (226 million pounds less than in 2006) due to decreased demand for the recycling of plastic bags.

We cannot recycle our way out of this problem.

Isn’t this bad for plastic manufacturers? What about jobs?

Businesses are changing all the time to meet consumer demand. Where the demand is shrinking for disposable bags, it’s expanding for reusable bags. Most plastic bags are manufactured in China, while opportunities abound for American small businesses offering a more durable alternative.

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