Our 2015 Maryland legislative agenda

On Wednesday, a new General Assembly will be sworn in, ushering in a new legislative session that may run very differently from the past four years. Even though the Assembly still has a veto-proof Democratic majority, Republican Governor-elect Hogan, a clear anti-tax mandate from voters, and a looming budget deficit have many progressive campaigns in a defensive posture.

Trash, however, has proven to affect everyone, from urban neighborhoods to rural farmland to the fishing community in the Chesapeake Bay. There are also a lot of ways to tackle the trash problem, and our goal is to work with the new Assembly to find common ground on solutions to keep making progress on reducing trash pollution across Maryland.

That said, we are focusing our efforts on three campaigns in 2015:

– Plastic bags. Bag bans and fees are proliferating rapidly around the US, with California passing the first state-level ban on plastic bags in 2014. In Los Angeles County, a two-year-old ban on plastic bags (with a 10-cent charge on paper) has reduced total disposable bag use by 90 percent. That’s all the plastic bags, plus a drop in paper bags. It’s an incredibly compelling solution to get shoppers to use reusable bags.

As we know in nearby DC, a 60-percent drop in bag use following a disposable bag fee turned into a 60-percent drop in bags found in streams and parks. Imagine cutting bag pollution in our state by 90 percent!

Bags are also a tremendous expense for retailers, sometimes as much as their third-highest overhead cost. If they no longer have to buy plastic bags, and can cut paper bag use, that savings can go back into the business, spurring investment, growth, and better pay and benefits for workers.

In 2015, Trash Free Maryland proposes that Maryland ban plastic bags and put a small fee on paper bags, motivating consumers to use reusable bags. The program pays for itself, reduces litter (and the inherent cleanup costs), and saves retailers money.

– Microbeads. A tube of toothpaste can contain as many as 300,000 plastic beads, all for color. (See those blue specks on your toothbrush?) A bottle of face wash, too. (Those are for exfoliating dead skin.) But they all wash down the drain, slip through wastewater treatment plants, and wind up in our rivers and the Bay.

Made of polyethylene, the beads absorb toxic chemicals like pesticides and fertilizers, becoming toxic balls that aquatic life mistake for food. Dentists even report finding tiny blue beads in their patients’ gums. The beads are quite visible in samples from our recent Chesapeake Bay Trash Trawl.

Natural alternatives are readily available, including walnut shells, apricot stones, and even salt or sugar. Instead of washing synthetic beads into our waterways, we need to push manufacturers to redesign their products. Several major manufacturers have agreed to voluntary phaseouts, but their timelines are a decade away. Can we afford to let our fish continue to mistake these beads for food, polluting our food chain from the bottom up?

Virginia, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Hawaii, and California will all be considering legislation to ban the sale of microbead-laden products this year. Like the ban on phosphorus in detergents, these state-level bans will drive manufacturers to reformulate their products nationwide and prevent this plastic pollution from increasing on a global scale.

Trash Free Maryland asks the General Assembly to ban the sale of personal care products containing microbeads, to protect our local fisheries and the Bay.

– Enforcement. While source reduction is key, we also need to get serious about penalizing the people who contribute to the trash pollution problem. Last year we passed a bill to put points on the drivers licenses of people convicted of illegal dumping, creating a statewide penalty system and a more meaningful punishment.

We know that people litter as a rebellious act, in part because they believe they won’t get caught–or if they do, the punishment will be light. Bolstering enforcement has tremendous potential to not just stop repeat offenders, but prevent other littering and dumping behavior too.

We are eager to work with legislators to identify targeted solutions, whether it’s mandating community service picking up trash, streamlining the citation process to make convictions easier (and more likely to stick), or specific approaches for problem items like tires or construction debris.

We’ll also be tracking related legislation as it’s introduced, and working with sponsors and other advocates to pass good policies to achieve a trash free Maryland. Stay tuned for updates, and have a great session!

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