Maryland’s second-largest county is pushing for a tax on plastic grocery bags, joining a number of local governments across the U.S. that are considering taxing or banning the bags as a way to reduce litter and generate extra revenue.
State lawmakers from Prince George’s County plan to push a bill in next year’s General Assembly that would allow a 5-cents-a-bag tax at groceries and other stores in the county, following similar laws in neighboring Montgomery County — the state’s largest county with more than 970,000 residents — and the District.
San Francisco became the first U.S. city in 2007 to launch a plastic bag ban, starting a movement that has spread mostly along the West Coast and through the Northeast, even as residents and officials argue about whether such laws are smart environmental policy or a nanny-state overreach.
“We think this is a much more environmentally sustainable approach, and it’s much more cost-effective,” said Seattle City Council member Mike O'Brien, who authored the city’s law banning plastic bags at groceries, department stores and many other retailers. The new law took effect July 1. “Plastic bags have some very negative impacts on our waterways. It’s not horrific pollution out there, but it’s visible to the eye.”
The law passed by Seattle’s nonpartisan council also requires stores to charge 5 cents for each paper bag they give out.
The new law came three years after Seattle voters rejected a 2009 referendum that would have allowed a 20-cent tax on plastic bags.
Local governments in 13 states and the District have passed laws to ban or tax plastic bags, according to the Campaign for Recycling. There have been no such statewide laws, although all four of Hawaii’s counties have banned plastic bags.
Environmental advocates have pushed for bag bans and taxes as a way to move shoppers toward reusable fabric shopping bags and away from disposable paper and plastic ones, which they argue are seldom recycled and often end up polluting waterways and littering neighborhoods.
Critics, however, argue that bag laws are intrusive and inconvenient. They say developing programs to encourage recycling is a better way to change behavior.
In Prince George’s County, a bag tax proposal similar to the one now being considered died last spring after some lawmakers raised concerns that a bag tax could disproportionately hurt poorer residents who might be less inclined to buy reusable bags.
In Darien, Conn., a town of about 20,000, the town’s 100-member Representative Town Meeting rejected a plastic bag ban in September, after many members said they already use fabric bags and don’t need laws telling them to make the switch.
“This is another ordinance that infers that we’re not wise enough to make proper choices in our lives, and which hinges on personal freedoms,” town meeting member Arden Broecking told the Darien Patch.
Some of the loudest objections to bag laws have come from plastic bag manufacturers, who contend their product gets a bad rap from environmentalists.
The American Progressive Bag Alliance, which represents a group of bag manufacturers, says its products are often recycled and reused by consumers, take up less landfill space than paper bags, and are made by American workers whose jobs are at risk when usage goes down.
“The majority of people reuse their bags. I use them for lunch; a lot of people use them for kitchen liners,” spokeswoman Donna Dempsey said. “There are 30,800 American jobs [in plastic bag manufacturing]. That’s what I think we should be talking about.”
Ms. Dempsey disputed the notion that bag taxes and bans are trending across the U.S., and characterized the places that have passed such legislation as outliers.
Officials who have passed bag laws generally have favored banning plastic bags with an occasional paper-bag surcharge, but some towns and counties in Colorado, Maryland and other states have opted to tax plastic bags rather than get rid of them.
Proponents contend that revenues, which often go to environmental programs, are a secondary goal behind reducing usage.
The District’s 5-cent bag tax brought $1.6 million to the city in fiscal 2012 after generating $1.8 million the year before. City officials hailed the 11 percent decrease as proof that the tax was working to wean people off of plastic.
Maryland state Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George’s Democrat and bag tax supporter, said he thinks a tax is less intrusive than a ban and provides an adjustment period for residents to get used to bringing their own bags to stores.
“As a transitional program, it makes sense,” he said. “Once people see how easy it is, they adopt it. After that, the next step could be a ban.”
Mr. Pinsky also argued that bans and taxes have little effect on shoppers’ grocery bills because bag costs already are built into prices and many stores offer rebates for customers who bring their own reusable bags.
Nonetheless, Ms. Dempsey said grocers and consumers insist that they want plastic bags as an option.
“They tell me that their customers want plastic bags,” she said. “For the reuse, for the convenience and for the ease of carrying their bags home.”
Despite such concerns, Mr. O'Brien said Seattle residents have widely accepted and even praised the city’s bag ban since raising complaints in the weeks before and after it took effect.
“It just kind of went away,” he said. “It’s the new normal.”