Baltimore: What Now?

Last night the Baltimore City Council voted down a proposal to apply a 10-cent surcharge on disposable plastic and paper shopping bags. The measure, sponsored by Councilman Brandon Scott, had the potential to significantly reduce litter in Baltimore neighborhoods by prompting most residents to bring reusable bags with them when shopping.

The Council voted 6-9 against the proposal. Councilmembers Scott, Jim Kraft, Mary Pat Clarke, Nick Mosby, Bill Henry, and Bill Cole voted in favor. Opponents, led by Council President Jack Young, asserted that the fee would be a burden on small businesses and low-income residents, in spite of research in nearby Washington, DC, that demonstrates the opposite effect.

As seen in DC and Montgomery County, a small fee on bags is a powerful motivator for people to switch from disposable to reusable. When we have less disposable plastic in the community, we have less disposable plastic as litter. Bags are a major component of trash polluting our neighborhoods and waterways. They may not always be visible in the water because they don’t float, but we’ve all seen them in trees, and along stream banks and roads. They get stuck in storm drains and can cause flooding. They are hard to recycle because they tangle in machinery. Cleaning up this mess costs money — and yet they are so easy to replace with a durable bag.

One common claim by opponents was that Baltimore lacked a comprehensive plan to address trash pollution. This claim is not entirely true. Over the past several years, Trash Free Maryland, Blue Water Baltimore, and our partners have worked with several council offices, the Office of Sustainability, the Department of Public Works, and the Sustainability Commission to identify priority challenges and best-practice solutions. Together, these efforts approach the problem from multiple angles and have the potential to dramatically improve the cleanliness of our neighborhoods and waterways:

– The Healthy Harbor Initiative and Blue Water Baltimore created a Trash Working Group to bring city agencies and nonprofit environmental and community organizations together to identify specific litter hotspots and develop collaborative campaigns to tackle neighborhood litter. Corner cans were recently installed in targeted neighborhoods, along with literature educating residents and businesses about trash collection days.

– Trash Free Maryland and its members have been working with council offices to develop and advocate for strong and effective policies to change behavior around littering. At the recommendation of the Office of Sustainability and other partners, we prioritized a bag bill over a polystyrene foam ban in order to maximize public education opportunities and make both programs more successful.

– Trash Free Maryland, Blue Water Baltimore, and the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper have collaborated with the Maryland Department of the Environment to develop a regulatory device to remove trash from the Baltimore Harbor and its feeder tributaries. This device, a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), encourages source-reduction and litter prevention programs as less expensive solutions to structural capture and removal tools, which increase in installation and maintenance costs over time without actually affecting public behavior.

We’re disappointed that the City Council was misled by bad information and failed to take a proactive step toward a cleaner city. All three of these activities will continue in the City — and all over the state of Maryland — as our population grows, our use of disposable products increases, and the risk of litter and trash pollution mounts. Meanwhile more and more citizens are organizing and asking for change. Whether the City passes its own laws, or becomes subject to those approved in Annapolis, source-reduction and litter-pollution policies are coming.

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