Plastic bags have been banned in some parts of the country and taxed in others, including the District and Montgomery County. Just last month, Maryland lawmakers considered imposing the country’s first statewide bag tax, of 5 cents. The legislation didn’t make it to the floor of the House of Delegates, but proponents promise to push the measure again next year.
“This is coming, one way or another,” said Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s), chairman of the powerful House Economic Matters Committee, where a watered-down version of the bill died after passing in the environmental committee. “The whole idea of free bags is going by the wayside. It’s not a matter of if, but when.”
Such tough talk has the plastic bag industry girded for a long battle against taxes and bans — not just in Maryland but around the country, where dozens of measures are under consideration. The industry’s fear, experts say, is that even though plastic bags account for only $9.8 billion of the $374 billion plastics business, targeting bags could be a starting point for increased regulatory scrutiny against other plastic products, including bottles.
Along with industry trade groups, executives from Advance Polybag and Hilex Poly, another top bag maker, are on the offensive, hiring public relations firms and lobbyists, writing op-eds, backing social media campaigns with titles such as BagTheBan. They complain their views aren’t given a fair hearing by lawmakers and regulators, who often leave their testimony to the very end of hearings.
“Give us a fair debate,” said Bill Ebeck, Advance Polybag’s director of sales, in an interview at the Elkridge plant attended by a representative from Edelman, the New York public relations firm that also represents Wal-Mart. “We can present the truths from the facts, as opposed to the opinions.”
Ebeck recently published an op-ed calling plastic bags “scapegoats,” declaring bags aren’t a major environmental problem and noting that “for the hardest hit families, every nickel counts.”
Once a wonder
Plastic bags weren’t always an object of derision. They were patented in 1962 by a Swedish engineer named Sten Thulin, who “devised an ingenious system of folds and welds that made it possible to transform a flimsy tube of polyethylene film into a strong, sturdy bag,” journalist Susan Freinkel wrote in her 2011 book, “Plastic: A Toxic Love Story.”