Following the blueprint set by Montgomery County and Washington, D.C., a Prince George’s County senator has proposed a bill to impose a fee on disposable bags, a measure which has failed the last four years.
The bill, sponsored by Senator Paul Pinsky (D- 22) would allow the county council to place a fee up to 5 cents per bag for paper and plastic disposable bags in retail stores. The bill defines a retail store as “a retail establishment that provides disposable bags to customers as a result of the sale of a product.” The bill only applies to paper and plastic bags distributed at the point of sale. It would not apply to bags used to package fruits and vegetables, or used to contain or wrap frozen foods, meat and fish.
Disposable bags pollute streets and rivers, and are costly to clean up, said Ian Ullman, Pinksy’s chief of staff. “It’s a win-win for the environment and taxpayers,” she said.
The majority of the revenue generated from the bag tax would go towards environmental clean-up initiatives, and the rest to bag give-away programs, Ullman said. Retailers may also be allowed to keep a small proportion of the revenue. However, it is up to the county council to determine how the revenue will be spent.
“We’re hopeful this will be the year it will pass in Prince George’s County,” Ullman said.
Montgomery County passed the bag tax, which is applicable to all retail establishments, in 2012. Revenue from the bag tax goes towards the county’s Water Quality Protection Charge fund. Additionally, retailers retain 1 cent of every 5 cent bag. Last year, the Montgomery County Council considered limiting the bag tax to food establishments only, but the proposal did not pass.
The bag tax in Montgomery County generated $2.39 million in revenue for 2013 and $2.3 million in 2012, according to a report presented to the Montgomery County Council.
Washington, D.C. implemented the fee in 2010, and it only applies to businesses that sell food or alcohol. Revenue goes towards the Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Fund, which is used to implement watershed education programs, stream restoration, trash retention projects and to purchase and distribute reusable bags.
Montgomery County and Washington D.C. both charge 5 cents per paper or plastic bags.
Julie Lawson, director of Trash Free Maryland, an alliance of advocacy groups to reduce trash pollution, said bag fees are good for the environment because reducing the use of disposable bags will help clean up streets and neighborhoods.
However, opponents of bag fees see it as nothing more than another tax, and it will be an economic burden for lower income families. Instead of imposing a fee, Lee Califf, executive director of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, said the county should emphasize using recycling bags. The organization consists of plastic bag manufacturers who oppose fees or bans on bags.
“A ban or tax on 100 percent recyclable grocery bags is bad policy. If lawmakers are interested in protecting the environment, they should consider the facts and not force feel-good legislation that does more harm than good,” Califf said. “Increasing recycling and recycling education is a better, common-sense approach that is good for the economy, the environment and consumers alike.”
Lawson said the switch to using reusable bags occurs across all income levels, citing Washington D.C. as an example.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s Congress Heights or Chevy Chase. The behavior change happens regardless of income level,” Lawson said.
Lawson also said the county can distribute reusable bags before implementing the fee. Revenue from the bag fees could also be used to purchase and distribute free reusable bags for residents.
“Bag fees are proven to work. They change behavior, get people to stop using disposable bags,” Lawson said.
The Greenbelt City Council supports the legislation, having voted 6-0 in support of the Pinsky’s bill at its meeting on Monday.
In addition to Pinsky’s bill, Delegate Jay Walker (D-26) has introduced a bill that would ban disposable bags in most stores. The bill excludes bags provided by a pharmacist to contain prescription drugs, plastic bags containing multiple bags intended for use as garbage, pet waste or yard waste bags, or bags provided for take-out food or drink from restaurants.
Walker could not be reached for comment.
The Prince George’s County House delegation will hold a public hearing for these measures, as well as other proposed legislation, on Tues. Dec. 16.
Sentinel reporter Michael Sykes contributed to this report.