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Prince George's bag fee not dead, but needs your help

On Wednesday, a preliminary vote on the Prince George's County disposable bag fee failed to move the measure forward. The Washington Post's article explained many of the dynamics, but the headline suggested the bill was dead. It's not, but it needs residents' help to pass.

Image from Trash Free Anacostia.

Unlike in Montgomery County, where a 5¢ fee began last month on plastic and paper shopping bags much like the one in DC, Prince George's County (and almost all other Maryland jurisdictions) needs permission from the General Assembly to enact certain taxes and fees. Bill PG 402-12, sponsored by Senator Paul Pinsky (D-District 22) and Delegate Barbara Frush (D-District 21), would give the county that authority for a bag fee.

"Local bills" like this one, which apply just to a single county, go through a different and much more complicated process than regular bills. A small committee of the county's legislative delegation, the County Affairs Committee, first discusses the bill, which happened Wednesday.

This committee voted 3-2 in support. Unfortunately, a bill needs 4 votes to earn a "favorable" rating from the committee—and that is how it "lost." But the committee can reconsider the bill if it wants, or the full county delegation of 24 delegates can take up the bill without a favorable report from the committee. If it's going to move forward any further, though, residents of Prince George's County need to contact their delegates now.

The plastics industry is paying for hundreds of robocalls, giving legislators the impression that there is strong public opposition. Supportive county residents and workers need to call and email and have their voices heard.

All Prince George's delegates are important, but one particularly important vote is Delegate Veronica Turner (District 26). She is a member of the County Affairs Committee, but was absent the day of the vote.

As DC has seen over the last 2 years, making the cost of single-use bags transparent by charging a nickel for them is a powerful motivator to switch to reusable bags. Three-quarters of DC residents say they have reduced their use of plastic bags, and businesses large and small have saved thousands of dollars by not having to buy as many bags.

Volunteers are picking up fewer bags during river cleanups, and grant money is flowing to green businesses and nonprofit organizations (including mine) that work to restore the Anacostia River, creating jobs. Low-income residents have received thousands of free reusable bags.

DC Councilmember Tommy Wells authored the bag fee as a step toward removing trash from the Anacostia River. But 50% of the river's watershed is in Prince George's County, making county the most important piece of the restoration puzzle.

Prince George's County spends $2.5 million each year picking up litter, and with new limits on trash pollution in the Anacostia River, the public expense is only going to go up. Shoppers pay more for food and other products because retailers add the cost of those "free" bags to prices—as much as $37.50 per year for the average shopper. There is no such thing as a free bag.

Finally, it's a matter of home rule. The County Council voted 8-0, with one abstention, to endorse PG 402-12. County Executive Rushern Baker has taken this campaign on as a personal project. If county leaders want to proactively address an environmental problem, why should the General Assembly interfere?

Julie Lawson is director of Trash Free Maryland, a nonprofit creating lasting change to prevent trash pollution. She previously worked for the Anacostia Watershed Society, volunteered with the Surfrider Foundation, and was principal at Communication Visual, a design studio for nonprofit organizations. She lives in Takoma DC with her son Owen. 


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I'm all for reducing the need for bags (sorry plastics industry), but isn't the primary argument against a bag fee that it's simply another tax and that the money eventually won't go to environmental matters?

by selxic on Feb 10, 2012 11:27 am • linkreport

That's the argument. Well, an argument. Personally, I'd say so what, the purpose of the tax or fee or whatever you want to call it is to reduce the use of bags. I don't care if the money goes to the general fund or to to specific environmental goals.

But in DC's case the money has gone directly to the Anacostia, so even that argument doesn't hold water.

by Tim Krepp on Feb 10, 2012 11:36 am • linkreport

I don't particularly care what the bag tax revenue is spent on. I just want to see a reduction in bag use. PG County has a serious litter problem. Reducing bag use will alleviate that significantly.

by ceefer66 on Feb 10, 2012 11:59 am • linkreport

@selxic-I see it more as a user fee. If someone wants to get a bag a checkout they are free to do so for a fee of 5 cents/bag. Why should I subsidize that persons bag use? I don't like paying more for groceries so someone else can get a bag a check out. If someone wnats to get a bag that way s/he should pay for it him/herself.

by Tina on Feb 10, 2012 12:09 pm • linkreport

As Julie's Dad, I'm keenly aware of the issue. One thing I've noticed in MoCo since the bag bill is that there are no more loose bags in the shopping carts out in the store parking lots.

by Geoff on Feb 10, 2012 12:13 pm • linkreport

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.]

DC wanted a bag reduction not to reduce trash; they wanted to stop plastic bags from clogging up the sewers and contributing to the storm overflow problem and the EPA fines.*

$37? really?

Does PG county have a storm overflow problem with their sewers? Are the bags contributing to the problem?

* the trash problem with bags in DC is mostly related to homeless people and plastic bags. Again, is that an issue in DC?

And why is PG county so different than MoCo in this regard?

by charlie on Feb 10, 2012 12:13 pm • linkreport

My can't the manufactures be made to produce bio-degradable bags, this would eliminate the need for the bag tax. It get rid of the problem absolutely!

by Locs on Feb 10, 2012 12:25 pm • linkreport

C'mon, Maryland, do the right thing.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Feb 10, 2012 12:44 pm • linkreport


Do you have any sort of facts that back up the idea that the bag trash problem in DC is "mostly" related to homeless people? Or is that just your assertion?

by MLD on Feb 10, 2012 12:49 pm • linkreport

As a resident of Prince George's County, I imagine plastic bag manufacturers (the ones who generated the robo-calls to the delegates)chuckling about how they got the small businesses and shoppers of Prince George's County to continue to pay for their destructive product, under the guise of saying we shouldn't pay for it! Grocers and other big retailers will continue to pass the cost of these bags on to us. Only small businesses who can't pass the cost along and residents will keep paying, not only for the bags but for cleaning up the trash that blights our neighborhoods and streams.

by Dana Minerva on Feb 10, 2012 2:05 pm • linkreport

I hope that the Prince George's State Delegation can get this bill enacted. It's the right thing for Prince George's and the right thing for our state.

I live in Silver Spring and work in downtown D.C. so I spend the bulk of my life in places that have this bag fee. It's an excellent idea and it has cut down on litter and the number or crappy plastic bags that I throw away. Everyone I know has either started remembering to bring the reusable bags they already had at home or purchased some reusable bags for like $.50 a piece. Totally worth it.

I have no problem with the bag fee money going towards our general fund in Montgomery. It's a great idea to take something wasteful and environmentally destructive like crappy plastic bags and making something good out of them.

by Cavan on Feb 10, 2012 2:16 pm • linkreport

@MLD; like everything on the internet, 90% ancedote.

However, I always found it interesting that Bread for the City was such a big backer of the bag bill. The only time I've seen widespread -- hundreds - of bags loose is the day after Christmas in Franklink square -- storm had blown though and knocked everyone loose.

Incidentlly, I just dropped off my year's worth of plastic bags for recycling. The bulk where dry cleaning, newspaper, air packs, and smaller bags not being reused for garbage duties. Total weight: less than 4 pounds -- although the damn thing is about 5 feet long.

by charlie on Feb 10, 2012 2:30 pm • linkreport

Come on PG County! You should be ashamed. After being the innovative leader in stormwater best practices, all those years ago - and now this? Youve become a follower. And youre not even following. Sheesh! Get on board!

by Ann Beman on Feb 10, 2012 4:50 pm • linkreport

I cannot tell you what a relief it is to switch to reusable bags. Once you get the hang if it you will never look at plastic the same way. Though I would suggest you get a GOOD reusable bag. Mine are in my opinion the best!.
Let's all help REDUCING PLASTIC trash, the impact it has on the environment is irreversible and heart breaking.

by Jennifer Richardson on Feb 10, 2012 8:55 pm • linkreport

Party on, advocates of regressive taxation.

by Kolohe on Feb 10, 2012 9:48 pm • linkreport

I live in an inner-ring suburb in Prince George's County, where men loitering and littering all day is a common occurrence. My street is littered with empty food and beverage containers, but no plastic bags in sight.

If you really want to reduce litter, charge a refundable deposit for cans and bottles (preferably cans and bottles that contain alcoholic beverages.)

by jcs on Feb 11, 2012 11:44 am • linkreport

I'm with ceefer. Bags are one of those subconscious things to deal with at a store, most people don't bat an eye that they'll get a bag for that stick of gum they just bought. The $.05 fee will hopefully make the connection that bags aren't always a necessary part of the transaction and I think that alone is a very important step in getting people to understand the value of conservation and not being wasteful.

People will learn to use bags when they absolutely need it. On top of that, it helps people plan for what they need to carry. I often go shopping under the notion I don't need a basket. If I can carry what I want to buy to the cashier, I can carry it out to the car in my hands. This lifestyle doesn't work for everyone, but it can certainly cut down on impulse buying and on things people don't really need so it's easier to live within their means.

I'm not entirely concerned with where the money goes as I'm more pleased with the psychological aspect of this exercise if this is passed. In my experience, PG has run a very decent recycling program so I don't see that needing a boost. Maybe parks and recreation? There are a lot of overdue projects that the MNCPPC want to get started on but lack funding, this could help, but if they want to generate revenue, it doesn't bother me if they do it this way.

As a resident of PG, I've done my part.

by Another Andrew on Feb 11, 2012 11:28 pm • linkreport

This issue has already been addressed in places of environmental leadership like Europe and California. It will eventually happen here. It is a perfect fit for all that is happening around the DMV region so why not make this a reality, not later, but NOW!

Our leaders have turned a corner in acknowledging the benefits of, and public's desire to be a nation and global environmental leader. It is time for practical actions like this, at a minimum, to occur if we really want to lead, instead of playing catch up.

by Robert Bell on Feb 13, 2012 9:48 am • linkreport

This is just another attempt at big brother modifying the behavior of the people. The orgional tax was ment to be used to clean up the water systems, but so far nothing has been done to clean them up. Most people don't want to have to lug around "reuseable" bags but have to or else they face another tax.

by Chris on Feb 13, 2012 12:36 pm • linkreport

@Chris-I'm someone who prefers reuseable bags. One reason is they are bigger and sturdier than disposables. Why should I subsidize your prefernce for disposable bags when I bring my own? The store pays for those bags by increasing the cost of all groceries for everyone. Its pretty hypocritical to be opposed to "big brother modifying the behavior of the people" by wanting people like me to subsidize your personal choice. I'm not asking you to pay for anything I use. Take some responsibility for yourself and pay for what you use instead of asking everyone else to pay for it.

by Tina on Feb 13, 2012 12:51 pm • linkreport

@ Tina
Have the stores dropped their prices because of the bag tax? They haven't so your still "subsidizing" the use plastic bags. I am paying for what im using already and on top of that a tax. You're missing the point that with this money that they "raised" they aren't using it for the intended purpose of cleaning up. Instead of getting pissed off at me for using plastic bags, get pissed off at the government for not following through on thier promises.

by Chris on Feb 13, 2012 1:17 pm • linkreport

@Chris-Have the stores raised their prices more slowly since they don't have to pay for YOUR bags anymore? I'm going to say they have with as much conviction and evidence as you, in your claim. Its a more reasonable outcome than what you suggest-that stores decrease prices.

I am paying for what im using already and on top of that a tax. Part of the user fee you pay for the bags in DC is returned to the stores. So yeah, with a fee attached to their use, you are paying for what you use. In PG Co. there is no user fee. Thus when I shop in PG Co and bring my own bags I'm subsidizing your use of bags.

Instead of you getting all pissed off at the goverment for asking you to pay for what you use why don't you just accept personal responsibility? I'm happy this legislation provides a mechanisim for people like you to start taking responsibility for yourself.

by Tina on Feb 13, 2012 1:31 pm • linkreport

@ Tina
Once again you are either missing the point or refuse to aknowledge it, so I will break it down. The Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Act of 2009 (the 5 cent bag tax) has done nothing to clean up the Anacostia River. That is my main problem. If the tax was going to it, I would not have a problem with it. DC is using it as another slush fund and to try to control people.

by Chris on Feb 13, 2012 2:14 pm • linkreport

@Chris-Once again you are missing the point or refuse to acknowledge it. So let me break it down: In your 1st comment you said, "Most people don't want to have to lug around "reuseable" bags but have to or else they face another tax."

This sounds like you lamenting the fact that you now pay for the disposable bags you use exclusively without making that cost be borne by people who do not use dispoable bags and/or do not want the cost of disposbale bags imbedded in the cost of their groceries.

I ask you once again, why should I, who prefers reuseable bags subsidize your use of disposbales by bearing their cost imbedded in the cost of my general groceries? Why should I support you this way?

The above complaint of yours, that you are now asked to pay for the bags you use as you use them, is seperate from your complaint about the use of the extra funds collected for river clean-up. Your complaints are twofold but you conflated them. Let me break it down for you:

1)you don't like paying for the bag per use. I.e., you preferred it when the cost was spread out among every shopper whether they used dispoables or not, thus subsizing your use.

2) you don't like it that the extra funds collected for river clean-up, on top of the bag cost returned to the stores, were diverted from the exclusive use of river clean-up.

As to your 2nd complaint, it sounds like you would be okay with the fee if those funds were not diverted from river clean-up. Is that right?

To sum up your two complaints about the bill and how it works;

(1)I too would prefer these funds were used for the purpose of river/environmental clean-up exclusively. However I know the fee has reduced use of these bags and that by itsself has contributed significantly to reduction of bag trash. This pleases me.

(2)I'm also pleased I no longer am forced to subsidize your dispoable bag use. I'm pleased this legislation forced you to start paying for your own bags.

by Tina on Feb 13, 2012 2:56 pm • linkreport

@Chris- The money is being used for watershed restoration, and it is restoring the Anacostia River. As of last summer, $1.5 million was granted out to nonprofits and green businesses. It has allowed for installation of two new trash traps. It has allowed for expansion of the RiverSmart Homes program. It has paid for an anti-litter public education campaign. About a million dollars has been used for administration, enforcement, and education about the law (including buying reusable bags and giving them to low-income residents for free). (Another million is waiting for the next grant cycle.)

We are definitely pulling fewer plastic bags out of the river at cleanups and in the trash traps. It is making a significant difference.

by Julie Lawson on Feb 13, 2012 2:57 pm • linkreport

@Julie-Thanks for clarifying that. Thats great!

@Chris-so whats your complaint? That you have to pay for your own bags?

by Tina on Feb 13, 2012 3:02 pm • linkreport

I have completely stopped recycling paper since paper bags are no longer free.
What am I supposed to do with lose paper.
I throw it all in the trash now.
Montgomery County is an awful place.

by maryland hater on Feb 13, 2012 4:43 pm • linkreport

@maryland hater (BTW your self-reported behavior is aptly descriped by your pseudonym)
1)the bags were never free.
2)When I breifly lived in MoCo we had plastic bins distributed by the Co. in which to place our recyclables.

Maybe this is a joke that i'm not getting b/c sometimes that happens on the internet? If not, I'm really astounded you can't figure out how to get your recyclables into the Co. distributed bin. Maybe you could carry them? Maybe you could use a reuseable bag in the house to collect those items then walk it outside to the bin when its full and empty it?

Really you can't figure out a way to do it? If the answer truly is yes then I'm sorry. You're problems are a lot bigger than managing to corral your recyclables, get them into the bin and out to the curb on trash night.

by Tina on Feb 13, 2012 4:59 pm • linkreport

So, based on Julie Lawson's numbers, $1.5M was raised via the bag tax, as of last summer.

Of that $1.5M, $1M (66%) was used to pay for government bureaucracy (which is not related to cleaning the Anacostia).

The remaining third was spent on nonprofits and "green businesses" (that's not directly related to cleaning the Anacostia); anti-litter ads (not directly related to cleaning the Anacostia); RiverSmart Homes program (not directly related to cleaning the Anacostia); and two trash traps (directly related to cleaning the Anacostia).

It would be great to see actual hard evidence of how cleaner the Anacostia is now versus pre-bag tax. Because it seems that most of the money raised via the tax is being spent on new bureaucracy or on items not directly related to cleaning the Anacostia. This isn't all that surprising since the intent of the bag tax was for social engineering, not cleaning the Anacostia.

by Fritz on Feb 13, 2012 8:47 pm • linkreport

@Fritz-there is hard evidence that after the bag fee has Anacostia is cleaner compared to before the bag fee. There is documented reduction in the number/volume of plastic bags pulled out of the river during annual trash removal. Read Julies article again. Its in there.

by Tina on Feb 14, 2012 10:23 am • linkreport

^ "the" Anacostia, not "has"...

by Tina on Feb 14, 2012 10:24 am • linkreport

I think you’re misinterpreting the point of all those programs. While it’s true that money isn’t being physically channeled directly into the river, most of those items that you listed and dismissed are fundamentally tied to restoration. The problem is you can’t simply dump money into a fancy gizmo to help the Anacostia and call it fixed. Watershed management and restoration just doesn’t work like that. Much of the cleanup effort is community based, by volunteers and humans; something that doesn’t have a cost figure. The tools that help the volunteers in the clean up aren’t free and that’s why these programs get funded, to give volunteers the tools to clean up. Education programs give locals the knowledge and awareness and enlighten others into helping out and preventative measures help keep people from littering anymore reducing the strain of future expenditures to clean the river.
It's wrong to readily dismiss many of those figures when nearly all of what you dismissed have an important indirect impact that helps the Anacostia Cleanup efforts.

by Another Andrew on Feb 15, 2012 12:34 pm • linkreport

How has the bag fees actually helped the rivers ?

Has the bag fee in DC had a noticeable affect on the rivers in DC

If your going to have a bag fee why not charge for all bags regardless of store type or bag type as all can create problems in the environment in one way or another.

by kk on Feb 15, 2012 10:00 pm • linkreport

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