We need your help to reduce plastic pollution in Maryland!
This winter, the Maryland General Assembly is considering a proposal to phase out polystyrene foam food packaging. These are the cups, plates, and clamshells you may see when you get takeout, or that you buy for picnics. They are a big problem in our waterways, as they break into tiny pieces, making them hard to pick up but also easy for fish to mistake for food. You can read a whole lot more about it here.
What can you do to help? Call your legislators, right now. Just type in your address and get a list of your legislators with a handy script, tailored to the legislator. Make four calls and let us know how they went. Many thanks to Surfrider Foundation’s DC Chapter for the awesome tool!
There’s been a lot of chatter lately the Montgomery County disposable bag law, questioning whether the current model is actually reducing litter or just raising money for county coffers.
As background, the Montgomery County law (effective 2012) is fairly similar to the one in DC (effective 2010)–both require stores to charge five cents for plastic or paper shopping bags at the point of sale, and remit most of the fee to the local government for environmental improvement projects.
DC did extensive research in 2012 and 2013 on the effectiveness of their law, demonstrating that residents were using 60 percent fewer bags than before the law, and that stores were giving out 50 percent fewer bags. The research also showed that the law was extremely popular with both residents and store owners; only 16 percent of residents and 8 percent of retailers opposed it.
Data from volunteer stream cleanups in DC have shown a 72 percent decrease in the number of bags removed from streams, parks, and other cleanup sites since the laws took effect. Montgomery County reductions are similar. These reductions haven’t emerged in any other jurisdiction in the region, so it’s likely the bag laws have created this effect.
Montgomery County hasn’t done any research on the effectiveness of their law, and councilmembers perceive public opinion to be low. The problem is, policymakers usually only hear from people with complaints; if you’re happy with the status quo, do you feel motivated to call and tell someone that? Probably not.
The County law also suffered a public relations setback early on, when revenues came back much higher than expected. We identified the reason why–the estimates were based on a faulty calculation of how many bags residents were using before the law took effect. You can read all the details about that here.
Revenue isn’t an accurate measure of the law’s effectiveness anyway. In 5 years, more businesses have opened. New residents have moved to the county. And it’s likely that more businesses are correctly reporting their fee collections now. Of course revenues would go up.
There are three key differences between the DC and Montgomery laws, though, that could be holding it back:
For that reason, it is still premature to declare the law a failure. It is demonstrably reducing litter in streams, but it could have much more public support if residents and businesses felt it was being implemented fairly and effectively.
Would an outright ban be better? Takoma Park just did it, and we advocated for a statewide ban in Maryland in 2015 and 2016. It could be, and if the Montgomery County Council prefers to try that approach, we are ready and able to help. Both models have their benefits, but the Council shouldn’t presume the fee is a failure when their only metrics are squeaky wheels and irregular revenue.
Remember the rubber duckies that were lost from a barge in the Pacific Ocean in 1992? The floating toys have since been found all over the world, demonstrating the connectivity of currents in the oceans and putting a cute squeaky face on the problem of plastic pollution.
On July 30, flash floods hit Ellicott City in Howard County and devastated the historic Main Street. The flood waters, from six inches of rain in just two hours, damaged or destroyed more than 200 buildings. Cleanup is underway and disaster relief is coming, but the mess in the Patapsco River remains. Mary Catherine Cochran, executive director of the Patapsco Heritage Greenway, described the debris like this:
I was in a briefing on Monday morning after the Saturday night flood and was shown a photo of an Ellicott Mills Brewery keg that had washed up on the shores of Fort McHenry. Not everything moves as fast. The river between Ellicott City and Bloede Dam–and even beyond is still full of large and small debris. Log jams, cars swept away by the flood, little tiny Christmas figurines that floated out of shops on their styrofoam rafts. It is a daunting project that will require state and federal intervention. At this point the E. coli levels are still astronomically high in the river from multiple spills and so access to remove the debris must be limited. DNR has closed the park while they wrestle with this issue and we’ll know more about their approach within the week.
Those figurines came from a couple of shops on Main Street
shop called Discoveries (edited August 15). Stream Watcher John Merryman found one Tuesday near the Route 1 bridge (5-6 miles away), indicating they are making their way downstream and will likely turn up in other places soon.
More than 80 turned up under the Ilchester Road bridge on July 31, August 5, and August 7.
We’re putting out the call on social media: If you find one of these, can you take a picture of it and post it with the tag #ECtreasures? We’ll get a Google Map going showing where they turn up and when, and maybe we can learn something about the flow of the whole debris field. You can tag us with @TrashFreeMD on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
On Saturday, June 18, Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection announced new programming to support the county’s 4-year-old disposable bag law.
The law, which took effect in 2012, requires all retailers in the county to charge five cents for each plastic and paper bag distributed at checkout. The charge encourages shoppers to bring reusable bags and reduce the amount of disposable bags that wind up as litter in the county’s neighborhoods and waterways. It’s working: volunteers at stream cleanups are finding 72 percent fewer bags since the law took effect!
To this point, the county has primarily relied on resident complaints about businesses that don’t charge the fee; the businesses then receive a letter educating them about the law. Starting this summer, the county will be more proactive, distributing new point-of-sale cards and posters to remind shoppers to bring their own bags, and identifying retailers that are not complying in order to offer more targeted training. The county is also giving away more free reusable bags to residents who need them.
Surveys in Washington, DC, where a similar law has been in place since 2010, show that business owners view the law very favorably, particularly because of the savings they see by buying fewer disposable bags. Shoppers generally understand that the charge is a reminder to skip disposable bags, and like that the funds are used to prevent pollution in the Anacostia River.
Take a couple of minutes and check out this great video by Jeff Bridges for the Plastic Pollution Coalition. Share the video with your friends, and then get involved with us to make a difference right here in Maryland!
Together with Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake and faith leaders around the state, we are calling on Marylanders to fast from plastic bags in the coming season of Lent. People of the Christian faith often practice fasting to reflect on changes they want to make in their lives. We encourage people of all backgrounds to take these 40 days to consider our throwaway culture and simple steps you can take to protect your community and the environment. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, February 10, and runs until Easter on March 27.
To inspire you, we’re holding a rally on February 9…Mardi Gras! Join us in front of the State House at 9 am. Faith leaders from Prince George’s, Anne Arundel, and Baltimore will speak about protecting our common home. We’ll have reusable bags, of course, along with festive beads and king cake. Need a ride from Baltimore? Get on the bus!
“For many Christians celebrating Lent, they’re preparing to journey with their God and reflect on the changes they want to make in their lives, said Jodi Rose, Executive Director of Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake. “Fasting is one practice that draws them into that journey. We’re challenging Christians to fast from plastic bags this year–and many are embracing this! We live in a throwaway culture that threatens all of Creation. This Lent, we’re asking people to reflect on that throwaway culture, their role in it, and how they can be a witness to God’s desire that we treasure the sacred around us.”
In response to calls from Maryland businesses and a growing awareness of the problems of plastic pollution, Delegate Brooke Lierman (D-Baltimore City) and Senator Victor Ramirez (D-Prince George’s County) introduced the Community Cleanup and Greening Act in the 2016 session of the Maryland General Assembly.
“It is rare to find a bill that will save businesses and consumers money, while also providing an immeasurable environmental benefit, and the Community Cleanup and Greening Act does just that,” said Delegate Lierman. “I’m so pleased to be sponsoring this urgently needed legislation. The time to help our businesses and save our struggling waters is now, and I am hopeful that the General Assembly will pass this bill this year.”
The Community Cleanup and Greening Act bans plastic shopping bags at checkout. According to cleanup data, plastic bags comprise as much as half the trash polluting Maryland waterways, and they are among the most visible forms of street litter, blowing down sidewalks and tangling in trees and fences. Many Maryland counties have stopped accepting plastic bags in residential recycling programs.
To encourage shoppers to use reusable bags, the bill also requires stores to charge 10 cents for each paper bag. Financial disincentives have successfully changed consumer behavior in other cities and counties, including Washington, DC, and Los Angeles County, California. According to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works, a typical store distributed 2.2 million disposable bags per year before their ordinance took effect in 2011. Beginning in the first month of the law, the same store distributed bags at a rate of 125,000 per year. (That’s a 95% decrease!)
Public hearings on the bill (HB 31, SB 57) are scheduled for February 2 and February 10.