On Tuesday afternoon, the Senate’s Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs committee held its hearing on the statewide bag fee. This was the first public hearing on the bag bill in 2013, and if it is any indication, the bill might just have a fighting chance in the legislature this year. As Senator Jamie Raskin (D-Montgomery), the bill’s sponsor, explained: the fee is neither experimental nor controversial, and presents an easy opportunity for Maryland to be a national leader on this issue. We couldn’t agree more.
After a very long day of hearing other bills, the supporters for the bag fee kept our testimony brief and to the point. Julie Lawson, of the Trash Free Maryland Alliance, introduced the bill and outlined why the 5-cent fee is the best solution to dealing with the known problem of plastic bag litter. Kate Judson, representing the District Department of the Environment, spoke about the success of DC’s bag fee and offered the District’s official support. Jen Brock-Cancellieri came from the Maryland League of Conservation Voters to highlight the correlation of litter with crime, and how the bag fee will help counties comply with looming federal water cleanup mandates. Additionally, the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce submitted written testimony in favor of the bill.
Many opponents of bag fees argue that recycling is the solution to the bag problem. This was clearly refuted by testimony from the Prince George’s County Department of Environmental Resources (DER). Desmond Gladden, who directs the County’s recycling facility, said that it costs $110,000 annually to clean bags out of the facility’s machinery, requiring 4 hours of daily staff time and lost productivity. The low price he gets for the bags does not offset the costs of dealing with the problems they cause. Adam Ortiz, the Department’s Acting Director, noted that the County also spends millions annually on litter cleanup, and that utilities such as WSSC and DC Water also spend resources cleaning plastic bags from their systems. In other words, plastic bags aren’t free — we are all paying to clean them up!
There were some questions and confusion on what happens to the revenue generated from the fee. Lawson clarified that the first purpose of the revenue is to buy reusable bags — as many as needed — to be distributed to low-income and elderly residents through existing outlets with the Department of Health and Human Resources. Leftover funds will be distributed back to the counties for environmental cleanup projects through the Chesapeake Bay Trust. Neither CBT nor the Comptroller take a cut of the revenue — 100% will be spent on reusable bags and environmental projects.
The last part of the hearing was testimony from the bill’s opposition, including representatives from the paper bag industry, the plastic bag industry, and a citizens group. Most of their arguments were built around misunderstandings of the bill or inaccurate facts about plastic bags, and based upon the response, it seems that most of the committee saw through them. Senator Paul Pinksy (D-Prince George’s), one of the bill’s cosponsors and a committee member, singlehandedly refuted many of the statements made by the opposition.
Tuesday’s hearing was a promising 2013 debut for the bag fee for Maryland. The next hurdle will be the committee hearing on the House side, on Friday, March 8. After that, each committee will vote on the bill, and hopefully send it to the full House and Senate floors!
-By Bradley Kennedy