Montgomery County Considering a Bag Fee

Montgomery County is now considering its own 5-cent bag fee, modeled on the one in place in DC. The revenues from the fee would benefit the Water Quality Protection Fund, which supports stormwater projects and watershed protection.

The arguments in favor of this fee are the same as those for a statewide one:

– A bag fee will reduce litter, which is both a visual blight and a pollutant in the water.
– Reduced litter will reduce the amount the County spends to clean up trash.
– Businesses will save money by not having to purchase as many bags.
– Any revenue generated will support restoration and protection projects to further improve our waterways.

The Montgomery County Council is expected to vote on this proposal in just a few weeks. You can tell the Council to support the legislation with a simple email or even a phone call:

District One
Roger Berliner

District Two
Craig Rice

District Three
Phil Andrews

District Four
Nancy Navarro

District Five
Valerie Ervin

At-Large Members
Nancy Floreen

George Leventhal

Hans Riemer

Two Articles Worth a Read

A couple of good articles have crossed my Twitter feed in the past week. (Follow @TrashFreeMD for regular updates!)

First, our friends in Oregon are working to pass a statewide bag ban. This effort follows on a successful campaign to ban plastic bags in Portland. Sightline Daily posted a story last week, Three (Unexpected) Reasons to Support Oregon’s Plastic Bag Ban. Among several good points, the article describes the problem bags are for recyclers. That’s right–while industry opponents claim we can solve the state’s litter problem by just increasing recycling, the people who actually do the recycling say the bags cost them money:

Closer to home, plastic bags have been a real problem for recyclers. The bags clog up recycling machinery so badly that one Oregon-based recycler recently estimated that 20 to 30 percent of their total labor costs were related to plastic bags — pulling them from the rest of the recycling stream, untangling them from their equipment, and stopping all work when bags clog up the machines — and about 7 percent of otherwise recyclable paper has to be landfilled because of plastic contamination. So plastic bags in the recycling stream likely undermine the effectiveness of recycling efforts overall.

The second article comes from the Earth Island Journal and its blog, the EnvironmentaList. Writer Amy Westervelt examines the parallels between the campaigns waged by Big Tobacco in the 80s and 90s, and the campaigns mounted now by “Big Plastic,” namely the American Chemistry Council and other lobbyists representing plastics manufacturers. Big Plastic is filing lawsuits to fight successful legislation efforts, pushing for de minimus clauses in regulatory legislation like limits on BPA content in baby bottles, and pushing for citizen’s “rights” to a product that ultimately harms them and the world around them.

But Big Plastic’s other tactic is more insidious: using environmental messaging to continue a wasteful and toxic practice of continued consumption of single-use plastics.

There are several examples of this, but the most insidious are the industry’s use of recycling as a justification for the continued use of disposable plastics, and its sponsorship of various research expeditions and conferences around ocean plastic pollution (which it euphemistically calls “marine debris”).

The American Chemistry Council was one of the lead sponsors of last week’s 5th International Marine Debris Conference, a gathering of 400 professionals and activists seeking ways to prevent ever more trash from collecting in our oceans’ gyres and on our coastlines. While they purported to support efforts to reduce this pollution, they also took to Twitter to attack data from Washington, DC’s bag fee experience.

Of course they don’t want to reduce our use of plastics any more than Philip Morris wanted us to buy fewer cigarettes. But by appearing to be socially responsible, whether through sponsoring these events or providing ashtrays to community groups, they both can blunt some of the criticism they’ve earned for propagating dangerous products.

Tell me about this bag fee.

The Clean the Streams and Beautify the Bay Act (SB602/HB1034) proposes to require shoppers in Maryland to pay five cents for each single-use plastic and paper bag they take from stores. The money raised from the fee is split between the store, the state, and the Chesapeake Bay Trust.

Why are we addressing bags?

Plastic bags make up a substantial proportion of trash in our region. A 2008 study in Washington, DC, found that a quarter of the trash in the Anacostia River, and half the trash in its tributaries, was plastic bags. While beverage containers, food wrappers, and other waste were also common, plastic bags are easily addressed because they are easily replaced with alternatives (reusable bags) or even unnecessary. (A bottle, on the other hand, is part of the product.)

We need to do something, and soon. The Anacostia River (with 80 percent of its watershed in Maryland) is so polluted that it was declared impaired for trash under the Clean Water Act. Baltimore Harbor is close to a similar designation.

If the trash studies find mostly plastic bags, why include paper bags too?

While currently most stores give out bags for free, they actually cost the store money to purchase. That cost is then added to the cost of the goods and passed on to the customer.

According to Safeway, paper bags cost about twice as much as plastic bags (five cents vs. two cents, on average). If plastic bags are the only target, customers will shift primarily to paper bags (as seen in San Francisco following their ban on plastic bags at large grocery stores), increasing the cost to the retailer.

Since the goal is to reduce the use of disposable bags with no negative impact on the store, both plastic and paper bags must be addressed.

The environmental impact of paper bags (in production, transportation, and recycling) is also not significantly better than that of plastic bags, even though littered paper bags do disintegrate in the environment (which is why non-degradable plastic bags are more common as pollution, while both types are commonly littered).

Why is the fee five cents, and not 20 cents (or higher)?

Five cents is closely tied to the cost of plastic and paper bags, as borne by the retailer. Charging that amount makes the cost of the bag more transparent to the consumer and allows them to make a more informed choice.

It’s also not necessary to use a higher fee. Washington, DC, uses a five-cent fee and saw bag use drop by 50 to 80 percent almost immediately. The nickel is enough to get the customer’s attention without being burdensome to most people.

Is the fee burdensome? Doesn’t it hurt the low-income?

It doesn’t have to. If a shopper always brings reusable bags and refuses a bag if s/he doesn’t need one, s/he never has to pay the fee. While reusable bags cost $1-3 in many stores (compared to the hidden cost of “free” bags of $15-37.50 yearly, as calculated by Anacostia Watershed Society), the revenue from the fee will help cover the cost of free bags for needy residents, distributed by the state. There are also other ways to get free bags to those who need them, including bag drives and distribution through food pantries and service organizations.

Bread for the City, a DC food pantry, has distributed tens of thousands of reusable bags to its clients. Those bags were donated by corporations, community members, and the District. Bread has subsequently bought fewer plastic bags for distributing its food, saving the organization several thousand dollars. Its clients prefer the cloth bags for their capacity, durability, and softer straps, making them easier to carry, and many clients bring their bags back each week.

Why not just exempt transactions using WIC or SNAP (food stamps)?

One grocery chain tried to fight DC’s proposed fee by telling public housing residents that the fee would hurt them. It backfired–the residents said those claims implied that they didn’t care about the environment and couldn’t make the choice.

Also, much effort has gone into making WIC and SNAP transactions appear more like cash transactions to reduce any stigma or embarrassment. An exemption would call attention to those customers.

Doesn’t this just raise money for the state? My taxes are high enough.

The goal of this bill is not to raise money, but to reduce the use of bags. (Ultimately, that will reduce the cost of litter pickup and other pollution mitigation currently borne by the state and jurisdictions. And that can reduce tax burden.)

DC’s Chief Financial Officer estimated that the fee would raise $3.5 million in the first year. In fact it only raised $2 million in 2010, because bag use declined so much more quickly than anticipated. This is a victory–fewer bags are making their way into the environment as litter.

The proceeds of the fee are divided between the store, the state, and the Chesapeake Bay Trust:

– The store keeps one cent of the fee to cover bookkeeping expenses. If the store offers a reusable bag credit program (giving the customer five cents back for bringing a reusable bag, as Giant and Target currently do), the store keeps two cents. This will help promote the consumer shift to reusable bags.

– A portion of the revenue is allocated to the Department of Human Resources, which is charged with purchasing reusable bags and distributing them for free to needy residents.

– The rest of the revenue is directed to the Chesapeake Bay Trust, which works to improve the quality of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries by offering competitive grants to municipalities, counties, and nonprofit organizations across the state. The Trust currently receives proceeds from the specialty license plate and other sources and is chartered by the General Assembly, but it is also independently managed, giving it some protection from budgetary fluctuations.

Why don’t we just ban bags?

Bans don’t give consumers a choice. While Kauai and Maui have banned bags, the state of Hawaii is still considering a fee.

Why don’t we just push recycling more?

We’ve had recycling for more than 20 years and the litter problem is only getting worse.

Americans consume 8 billion pounds of plastic bags every year. In 2006, 590 million pounds were recycled in the US and Canada, leaving over 7 billion pounds to be discarded. In 2009, 364 million pounds were recycled in the US and Canada (226 million pounds less than in 2006) due to decreased demand for the recycling of plastic bags.

We cannot recycle our way out of this problem.

Isn’t this bad for plastic manufacturers? What about jobs?

Businesses are changing all the time to meet consumer demand. Where the demand is shrinking for disposable bags, it’s expanding for reusable bags. Most plastic bags are manufactured in China, while opportunities abound for American small businesses offering a more durable alternative.

A Never-Ending Stream

Davey Rogner spent much of last year picking up trash. As campaign coordinator for Pick Up America, he traveled from Maryland’s Atlantic coast into Ohio, as part of PUA’s mission to walk across the country picking up trash and building a network of activists.

It’s an admirable goal, but cleaning up litter is not sustainable. Davey wrote about a recent volunteer event in Hyattsville, and you can feel the frustration in his words:

Yesterday, volunteers spread over the same 300 yard section of stream I’d cleaned back in 2009 and over the course of two and a half hours made that section the cleanest I have ever seen it. Reflecting on the volumes of trash that were once there it was satisfying to see our progress in cleaning that area. Neighbors of the Northwest Branch have been cleaning that same section of stream at all of their bi-yearly clean-ups. I am happy to report, that for now, it’s time to move on from this section. It is very clean. Let’s head to the other side of the stream.

Seeing that most of the work was finished on that section, I wanted to take a crew over to the “Welcome to Hyattsville” sign I had visited a year earlier. We crossed under Queens Chapel Rd through a large stream outwash storm drain. As soon as we got to the other side, everyone was taken aback by the filth. At another clean-up I did in 2009 with about 30 volunteers from a UMCP student group Engineers Without Borders in 2009, we focused solely on this very spot next to the giant storm drain. It was actually in worse condition than when I had cleaned it in 2009.

I asked everyone to leave the trash there as I thought it important to visit the forest next to the “Welcome to Hyattsville” sign. When we got to the forest we were dumbstruck. Not only was the place filthy, but it was worse than when I passed by in 2010. A path had been created into the forest where one broken chair sat alone surrounded by heaps and heaps of litter. Three men stood in a circle amongst what to me appeared to be a drunken trash lair. With a smile, they exited the forest. I said “This place is filthy, do you want to help us clean?” One said “What?” Thinking he didn’t speak English, I simply said “Mucho Basura.” He said “yes” and walked away. His friends followed, both looking drunk, desperate, and possibly even confrontational since we were descending upon their lair.

It’s time to address the trash problem from a new angle, to reduce the amount of “stuff” we use and therefore the amount of waste we produce. Contact your legislators today and ask them to support the Clean the Streams and Beautify the Bay Act of 2011.

How does a bag fee affect low-income residents?

Bread for the City, a direct-service organization serving Washington, DC’s low-income population, recently wrote a blog article about their experience with the District’s five-cent disposable bag fee, and what that has meant for clients of their food pantry.

In general, the response has been positive. Bread received tens of thousands of reusable bags through community and corporate donations, and uses them to distribute food to clients. Clients who bring their bags back receive additional produce the following week. Plus, “One woman told [us] that she’s noticed a clear change, and is proud to live ‘in a community that doesn’t have plastic trash flying at you in the wind.’ Someone even asked us when the government is going to put a fee on bottles and cans.”

Bread, and other food pantries, can always use more bags. If you can make a donation or help organize a collection drive, contact

Clean the Streams & Beautify the Bay Act of 2011

Maryland’s General Assembly is now officially considering legislation to reduce the number of disposable shopping bags used in the state. Earlier this month Senator Jamie Raskin and Delegate Al Carr introduced the Clean the Streams and Beautify the Bay Act of 2011. You can read the bill online here: HB 1034 and SB 602.

The bill states that stores will charge five cents for each plastic and paper shopping bag distributed at the point of sale, with exceptions for restaurants and farm stands. Of the fee collected, the store will keep one cent (two cents if the store gives a credit for reusable bags) and the remaining three to four cents will go to the Comptroller, who will distribute funds for distribution of reusable bags and restoration activities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Those restoration activities will be administered through a grant program within the Chesapeake Bay Trust, a chartered

Hearings on these bills will be on March 8 (Senate) and March 11 (House of Delegates), in Annapolis. To tell your delegates, senator, and governor to support the Clean the Streams and Beautify the Bay Act of 2011, click here!

A Big Week for Bag Bills

Plastic litter reduction proposals are sweeping the nation, with lots of activity just this week:

Yesterday, the Environment and Natural Resources Committee of Oregon’s Senate heard public debate on SB 536, which would ban disposable plastic bags and put a five-cent charge on paper sacks. This legislation seeks to bring consistency to the state’s bag regulations, as Portland has already passed such a ban. Surfrider Foundation’s Portland Chapter has been a leading proponent of the Ban the Bag campaign in the state.

Today, February 9, Connecticut’s Environment Committee is debating a proposal to put a 5-cent fee on both plastic and paper shopping bags (like DC has and Maryland could have). Again, this would provide consistency across the state, as some stores and municipalities already have bans. You can watch the debate online starting at 11 am, or later via the archive.

And of course tomorrow the Trash Free Maryland Alliance is hosting our Waste in Our Waterways panel at the Lowe House Office Building in Annapolis. Join us for a discussion of why Maryland needs the Clean the Streams and Beautify the Bay Act of 2011, followed by a screening of the film Oceans of Plastic. It all starts at 11:30 in room 142.

Waste in our Waterways Panel – Feb. 10

Waste in our Waterways Panel Discussion Thursday, February 10

Please join a distinguished panel for a discussion of trash in our waterways, and hear about the success of Washington, DC in enacting a small fee on disposable bags. After finding that a significant percentage of the trash floating in the Anacostia River was plastic bags, the Council of the District of Columbia took decisive action to limit the source of that pollution.

Thursday, February 10, 11:30AM – 2 PM
House Office Building, Room 142
6 Bladen Street
Annapolis, MD

At the conclusion of a Q/A session with our distinguished panel, supporters will be sticking around to view Oceans of Plastic, a film about the mounting danger of single use plastics in our waterways and oceans.

The Panel will feature:

MD Delegate Al Carr (District 18)
The lead sponsor of the Bag Bill in the MD House of Representatives

DC Council Member Tommy Wells (Ward 6)
The lead proponent of the successful DC Bag Bill

Chestertown Mayor Margo Bailey
A community leader working to ban plastic bags in her municipality to protect the Chester River

Andrew Harris
A researcher from MD who is developing an ocean sampler to measure the concentration of plastic particles in the North Pacific Trash Gyre

The Panel will be facilitated by Brent Bolin
The Director of Advocacy for The Anacostia Watershed Society

For more information please visit:


Apologies for the late notice…

Due to last night’s weather, several of our panelists are unable to make it to Annapolis today, and we are working to reschedule the panel and film event. Check back here for more details.

In the meantime, please take two minutes to contact your legislators to ask their support for this bill. You can send a quick e-mail here.

Exploring the alternatives

By Barb Krupiarz, Sierra Club

Estimates of plastic bag usage across the globe are between 500 billion and 1 trillion each year. With the conservative estimate, that is still almost 1 million bags used per minute. The US EPA estimates that less than 5% are recycled each year. Even if some bags are reused, the worldwide litter problem from plastic bags is still immense. And, the cost of these “free” bags to retailers is over $4 billion each year – another cost tacked on to the consumer.

So, what are the alternatives? Some say to recycle more. But, at 1 million bags used per minute, can we keep up with that rate for recycling? The American Chemistry Council sites the plastic lumber manufacturer, Trex, as the largest recycler of plastic bags in the U.S. with 1.5 billion bags recycled every year and making up 10% of their product. The problem is that U.S. consumers use 100 billion bags per year and the fact remains that plastics are a major cause of ocean pollution. In 2006, the U.N. estimated that oceans have 46,000 pieces of plastic in them for every square mile.

What about switching to biodegradable, cornstarch-based bags? There are several problems with this alternative. The first is that the cost to manufacture these bags is currently much higher than the cost of conventional plastic bags. These bags are made from roughly 5% starch, but also a petroleum-based polyester and don’t really degrade in a home compost bins or landfills. Finally, these bags cannot be recycled with ordinary bags and contaminate the recycling stream.

What about recyclable paper instead? While paper recycling is readily available, paper bag manufacturing still requires large amounts of natural resources and causes a significant amount of pollution.

The debate about plastic vs. paper still goes on today, but the bottom line is that the best solution eliminating disposable bags that have a life span of 12 minutes and replacing them with reusable bags.