Baltimore Bag Law: Clearing up some misconceptions

Gwynns Falls / Photo: Blue Water Baltimore

The Baltimore City Council may be voting on the 10-cent disposable bag surcharge this afternoon. Several letters from residents have run in the Baltimore Sun, and some of them reflect common misunderstandings.

Why a fee, not a ban?

Both approaches tackle bag litter by significantly reducing the number of disposable bags taken from stores. A fee allows people to decide: do I want to buy bags 10 cents at a time, or spend a dollar for one I can reuse for years?

Two advantages to the fee come from the fact that some people will continue to choose to use disposable bags. These funds provide both a safety net for disadvantaged residents, allowing the City to buy reusable bags and distribute them for free to those who need them, and the funds are available for broader environmental restoration efforts, expanding the impact of the law to more environmental needs.

Funds from the surcharge will also be available to pay for an education campaign to tell people about the law and the hazards of litter. Without these funds, such a campaign will require funds from another area in the City’s budget.

A ban would only address the bags themselves, and the City would have to figure out ways to get reusable bags into the hands of people who can’t afford them. Also, most bans around the nation still don’t capture every disposable bag, because they don’t apply at all stores.

How do we know the money will be used for these purposes?

The bill has been amended to clarify that the revenues will go to a sustainability fund. This dedicated fund requires a charter amendment, which will be on the ballot in November. Residents can also be confident that advocates will be aggressive in their oversight of this fund–we want this program not just to pass, but to work.

Why plastic bags? I see lots of other litter too.

We can educate people about the problems of litter generally, but to create significant behavior change, we have to target specific behaviors. Each component of litter is associated with different specific behaviors, so each component requires a specific approach. With bags, we can significantly reduce litter by encouraging reusable bag use. With beverage containers, we reduce littering and increase cleanup by making the bottles and cans worth something–a refundable deposit has been proven for decades to work. For cigarette butts, we need disposal devices that people don’t fear will catch fire–and we need people to realize those filters are not biodegradable. The list goes on. Addressing disposable bags is just one piece of the puzzle.

Isn’t this a tax on the poor?

Everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, can make the choice about whether to bring a reusable bag or not. The bag law will only affect your shopping bill if you choose to use disposable bags. Period.

Won’t it hurt small businesses?

In DC and Montgomery County, no business has reported declining sales because of bag laws. Instead, most report significant savings because they don’t have to buy as many bags. Only 8% of businesses surveyed in DC in 2012 oppose the bag law–and their reasons are because they feel their customers misunderstand it.

Baltimore, we can do this. We can change the perception that the city is dirty. We can get bags out of the trees, out of the storm drains, and out of our waterways. Please call your council member today and ask them to vote YES on Bill #13-0241.

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