It's time for Maryland and Virginia to pass a bag tax

Tuesday, January 25, 2011; 9:40 PM

LEGISLATION TO CURB litter and clean up regional waterways through a five-cent fee on disposable plastic and paper bags has twice failed in Virginia and Maryland. Lawmakers said they feared businesses could be harmed and that the public wouldn't be able to cope. But with new proposals pending in both state legislatures, lawmakers need only look to the District of Columbia to realize that those fears are unfounded and that the D.C. experience presents clear evidence of the success of the bag fee. Maryland and Virginia should follow suit.

The District's five-cent tax on bags took effect in January 2010, and all indications are that it is working as intended in getting people to change their habits. Instead of using the bags that too often end up as litter on local streets and in local rivers, consumers seem to have made the switch to reusable bags. City officials have estimated that there was an astounding decrease of some 80 percent in bag use, from about 270 million a year before the fee was imposed to around 55 million bags in 2010. The $2 million in bag tax revenue was less than the $3.5 million that had been projected, but city officials, instead of complaining, saw the shortfall as a sign of success; after all, the bill's goal was to reduce the number of bags that end up in the Anacostia River. Environmental groups that clean up rivers say they have already noticed the difference. Even small businesses, many of which had been wary of the tax, have found cost-saving benefits to the law.

The clear success of the law in the District offers a compelling case to lawmakers in Richmond and Annapolis, who this week will begin consideration of legislation that mirrors the city's. In Virginia, a House of Delegates subcommittee is scheduled to consider a bill introduced by Del. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria) on Wednesday. Environmental and agricultural groups hope to overcome opposition from the manufacturers of the bags, arguing that H.B. 2047 - in addition to getting people to change their ways - would help raise money for the Virginia Water Quality Improvement Fund.

In Maryland, Del. Alfred C. Carr Jr. (D-Montgomery) and Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery) are preparing to introduce the Clean the Streams and Beautify the Bay Act of 2011, and on Thursday a bid by the Trash Free Maryland Alliance to build support for the law will be launched. Under the Maryland legislation, revenue would be targeted toward cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay. The proposed measures face hurdles in both states, but if lawmakers pay attention to the facts, they will conclude that there are many benefits, and few downsides, to using bags that don't end up with their own costs to the environment.

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