"They Clog Storm Drains, Get Caught In Trees, They're Just Everywhere:" Debate Continues Over Baltimore County Plastic Bag Ban
BALTIMORE COUNTY - At Tuesday evening's meeting of the Baltimore County Council, residents voiced overwhelming support for the proposed plastic bag ban.
In January, three council members introduced the Bring Your Own Bag Act, a bill that would ban plastic bags for businesses starting Nov. 1, 2023, and levy a 10-cent minimum charge on paper and reusable bags at retail and grocery stores. The bill is intended to incentivize residents to bring reusable bags when grocery shopping to reduce pollution and litter in the county.
The bill's sponsors, Democratic Councilman Mike Ertel of Towson, Democrat Izzy Patoka of Pikesville, and Republican David Marks of Perry Hall, say the bill is pro-environment and will alleviate stress on landfills and the bay. County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. has also endorsed the measure.
The ban follows in the footsteps of Howard County and Baltimore City, which have already implemented similar laws.
Two dozen attendees provided testimony during Tuesday's work session, and 23 more submitted written testimony to voice their opinions about the bill.
Most of those who spoke on Tuesday favored the bag ban, including Andrew Miller, a county resident and a Geography and Environmental Systems professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
"They clog storm drains, get caught in trees, they're just everywhere in huge numbers," Miller said. "They harm wildlife and aquatic life, not only in streams and wetlands but in the Chesapeake Bay and the world's oceans."
Councilman Ertel hopes the bill will drive consumers to forego a bag when making smaller purchases.
"We see a lot of people who go to a convenience store and order and get a soda and a pack of gum, and they're getting a bag," Ertel said. "And then they toss it on the parking lot immediately."
Ertel's hopes were supported by Adam Lindquist, the vice president of programs & environmental initiatives for the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, who said that since Baltimore City's bag ban, there has been a 63% reduction in plastic bags in area waterways.
"It's time for the county to do its part so we can eliminate that other 37%," Lindquist added.
Much of the controversy centered around how the 10-cent fee would impact businesses and low-income residents. The bill currently contains exceptions for people who receive food benefits such as from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). These individuals would not be charged for any bags, whether paper or reusable.
Zachary Taylor, director of the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance, called the bill "regressive" and said, "It will hurt the poorest families who are already struggling with inflation the most."
Sarah Price, a lobbyist for the Maryland Retailers Association, countered Taylor's assertion and described the 10-cent fee as a "sweet spot" for businesses.
"As the businesses are being forced to transition to this more expensive material, they're able to recoup the cost from that," Price said.
Councilman Izzy Patoka said that the council is discussing a 5-cent fee, and County Executive Johnny Olszewski has signaled that the 10-cent price is not set in stone.
"I encourage council members to carefully consider impacts on our families, including fee reductions and preserving protections put in place for low-income residents," Olszewski said in a statement on Jan. 3.
Other testimony focused on potential food safety hazards caused by paper and reusable bags.
Melvin Thompson of the Restaurant Association of Maryland requested that the council consider exempting restaurants and retailers from the ban, saying that reusable may cause cross-contamination.
"As we understand, the goal is to incentivize customers to bring their own reusable bags. This doesn't work for restaurants because reusable bags pose legitimate food safety concerns," Thompson said. "Reusable bags could have been previously used to carry raw meat or seafood and other retail goods."
Nicole Youse, the owner of Crossroads Bistro in Sparrows Point, said plastic bags are better for containing messy takeout orders.
She recounted an interaction with an angry customer who was upset because Youse's restaurant was using paper bags.
"[The customer's] soup spilled, her container had leaked, and her fries created moisture and grease. That caused a paper bag to destruct and her food to land all over the back of her expensive car."
Youse said she paid to have the customer's car cleaned.
"We honestly cannot allow our customers to bring their own bags due to the fact that cross-contamination may result in food-borne illness, and we would be blamed," Youse added.
Amendments are expected to be proposed for the controversial legislation before a vote scheduled for Monday, Feb. 6.