Maryland could become the first state to impose a charge for disposable bags this year if a coalition of environmental, religious and business groups persuades lawmakers that a proposed 5-cent fee would help the environment and not burden low-income residents.
The fee, which would apply to plastic and paper bags, comes as at least five other states — Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, Vermont and Washington — contemplate a similar charge. At least six states — Arkansas, California, Florida, New Jersey, Oregon and Rhode Island — are considering banning all disposable bags.
Douglas Shinkle, a senior policy analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures, said momentum for such fees has been growing nationally at a time when cash-strapped states worry that the proliferation of bags in waterways will make it more difficult to comply with strict federal clean-water rules.
“I think that legislators are really hearing from their constituents on this,” he said. “I would not be surprised if this is the year that something passes.”
Under the Maryland proposal, which will be aired Friday in the House of Delegates, shoppers would be charged a nickel for each disposable bag. Merchants would be able to keep about a penny per bag, and stores that offer a rebate to customers who bring their own bags could keep 2 cents for each disposable bag sold.
The measure is sponsored by Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery) and Dels. Michael Summers (D-Prince George’s) and Mary Washington (D-Baltimore), who say it would be a way to reduce trash while making more money available for environmental cleanup.
“It is dramatically reducing the litter and pollution and the landfills, and people are adjusting their behavior to it,” Raskin told lawmakers as he described Montgomery County’s year-old, 5-cent fee.
Although many Maryland lawmakers say a cleaner Chesapeake Bay and Anacostia River are high priorities, skeptics, including legislators from Baltimore and Prince George’s County, are worried about the cost to low-income and elderly residents.
“I have always been opposed to the bag tax, not because of the grocery stores or plastic bag manufacturers . . . but because of knowing what it is like to have to subtotal every item to see if you have enough to buy another item,” Del. Cheryl D. Glenn (D-Baltimore) told fellow members of the legislature’s black caucus.
James Wright, president of the Seat Pleasant Citizens Association in Prince George’s, said he is concerned that the charge might grow. “People here want to know what is the proper charge for the bags,” he said.
Bag manufacturers are tapping into those anxieties, saying that a bag charge in Maryland and elsewhere is misguided at a time when some states are weighing tax increases.
Gary Gabel of Tulsack, a manufacturer of paper bags from recycled boxes, told lawmakers he is also worried by the potential exploitation of workers abroad for goods sold in the United States, an issue that often resonates with lawmakers.
“There are conflicting feelings about social responsibilities,” said Gabel, referring to working environments abroad that he said often resemble sweatshops.
But bag-charge advocates said they have knit together a broad coalition that is framing the debate as a matter of economic and environmental equity, something they failed to do last year when the House delegation from Prince George’s was divided about a county bag bill.
D.C. Council members Tommy Wells (D) and Marion Barry (D), architects of the District’s 2009 bag charge, recently urged the Maryland black caucus to support the legislation. They said poor communities are hurt more by trash from bags than wealthier ones and that a bag charge could lower expenses for low-income residents.
“Have courage,” Barry said. “Community benefits are worth far more than 5 cents.”
Wells pointed out that some stores with many low-income customers, such as Aldi’s and Save-A-Lot, already charge for bags instead of working the cost of bags into their pricing. “The truth is these bags are not free,” Wells said.
Dottie Yunger, a minister trying to rally religious leaders in Maryland, said some lawmakers from predominantly African American communities remain wary of a bag charge because some view environmental advocates as elitists uninterested in the impact their proposals have on low-income residents. But Yunger, who is white, and other advocates of the bag charge have won over many by pointing to the potential to expand recreation in a cleaner Anacostia and the prospect of resuming river baptisms, abandoned years ago when the river became too polluted.
“It takes a lot of relationship-building and a lot of time,” she said. “It is not a referendum on race.”