Greater Greater Washington

Barry: "Have courage" and pass the Maryland bag fee

Yesterday morning, DC Councilmembers Marion Barry and Tommy Wells went to Annapolis together to brief the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus on the success of DC's 5¢ disposable bag fee, and ask them to support a similar proposal currently before the Maryland General Assembly.


Photo by the author.

The Community Cleanup and Greening Act (HB1086/SB576) would mirror the District's Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Act and Montgomery County's bag law, which impose a 5¢ charge on all disposable plastic and paper bags retailers give out.

As in DC and Montgomery County, the bill intends to reduce the number of disposable bags shoppers use, and thus reduce litter and water pollution. Grocery stores report giving out 70% fewer bags since the fees took effect.

Delegate Michael Summers (D-Prince George's), a lead sponsor of the bill, introduced Barry as "everybody's mayor," and caucus members and the audience responded with a standing ovation. Barry went on to explain how Councilmember Tommy Wells had convinced him of the need for the bill by taking Barry out to the banks of the Anacostia River and showing just how much plastic bags pollute the river.

Wells provided context and rationale for the bag fee, and called it the "most successful environmental initiative in DC." He described how discount grocery stores like Aldi and Save-a-Lot have never given bags away for free, as part of their commitment to keeping prices as low as possible.

Barry concluded the briefing by urging his Maryland counterparts to "have courage," noting that the "community benefits are worth far more than five cents." After the meeting, Barry committed to further supporting the effort. "We have to do more to educate them," he said.

While the Anacostia River has seen significant reductions in plastic bag pollution, more than half of the river's watershed is in Prince George's County, which does not yet have a bag fee.

The Community Cleanup and Greening Act was heard by the Senate's Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee on Tuesday. The next public hearing, before the House Environmental Matters Committee, is scheduled for March 8. In addition to Summers, the bill's sponsors are Delegate Mary Washington (D-Baltimore City), Senator Jamie Raskin (D-Montgomery), and Senator Brian Frosh (D-Montgomery).

Julie Lawson is director of the Trash Free Maryland Alliance, a network of organizations working to reduce trash pollution through a common policy agenda. 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 am against this tax for selfish reasons:

I use these bags when I clean out my cat litter boxes.
I uses these bags for the trash that accumulates in my car.
I use these bags to hold aluminum cans I accumulate to convert to cash.

by Sand Box John on Mar 1, 2013 10:27 am • linkreport

@Sand Box John,

Should be well worth the nickel a bag to you then.

by oboe on Mar 1, 2013 10:32 am • linkreport

So then pay the darn tax. People got on fine without plastic bags until 50 years ago. Current economic incentives, free bags everywhere you turn are a negative incentive leading to waste. Having a tax isn't meant to completely eliminate their use just to reduce it.

by Alan B. on Mar 1, 2013 10:34 am • linkreport

Or train your cat to use the toilet.

by Frank IBC on Mar 1, 2013 10:38 am • linkreport

Now I'm compelled to go home and figure out what I'm paying for bag for my regular trash bags and see how it stacks up.

by drumz on Mar 1, 2013 10:38 am • linkreport

@oboe-my exact thought. If you need the bags so much, then pay the 5 cents for them, or RE-USE them. The ones you use for cans and trash in your car can easily be re-used.

by Tina on Mar 1, 2013 10:40 am • linkreport

Uh. So we we who live in MoCo have to pay 10 cents per bag now? Awesome.

I have to say the bag tax is one of the more annoying things about living in the county. Every time I'm in line at the grocery store it takes FOREVER because some cheapskate is trying to stuff 80 items into their two disposable bags - like the extra 10 cents is going to break you....

Also I HATE the fact that baggers now overstuff the bags that I do get (I refuse to bring reusable bags), and they break. Seriously. Don't waste my time. I want bags. I want the milk in a bag. I live in MoCo, ergo I can afford the extra 25 cents to double bag things so they don't break. Just give me the damn bags. Rant over.

by Moco on Mar 1, 2013 10:42 am • linkreport

Moco: No, this will not add to the cost for Montgomery County stores. The legislation text specifically says the bill only applies to stores in "A COUNTY THAT HAS NOT ENACTED A COUNTY–ADMINISTERED DISPOSABLE CARRYOUT BAG FEE PROGRAM ON OR BEFORE MARCH 31, 2014." [capitalization in original]

by David Alpert on Mar 1, 2013 10:49 am • linkreport

Wait reusable bags break more than flimsy plastic ones? Now that's just making stuff up! I've been using the same bags weekly for about 6 years. I think you mean that you just aren't willing to plan ahead. My mom keeps hers in her car (which I think is very smart). I don't drive but sometimes I keep a small on my messenger bag in case I need one. And on the rare occassion, I don't have one, I suck it up and pay the 5 cents.

by Alan B. on Mar 1, 2013 11:02 am • linkreport

I usually bring reusable bags, but my question is:
Are we really getting 5 cents worth of bag?

I find the plastic bags useful for sealing up food waste like banana peels so they don't stink up the trash can immediately. But I find that in recent years, even if the bag contained only a few lightweight groceries, by the time I get it home and empty it there is usually a hole in it somewhere (making it unsuitable for containing food stuffs that might leak).

It seems environmentally irresponsible to produce a bag that can only be used once, does it not? Let's push grocery stores to take more pride in their work and produce a higher quality 5 cent bag. I know America can do it. Or China - wherever they come from.

by Chris on Mar 1, 2013 11:03 am • linkreport

Moco, just tell the clerk or bagger, "Can you double bag that? Thank!" or "It's fine to put the milk in it's own bag." It's not hard. They're not mind readers. Communication and civility go a long ways.

by Birdie on Mar 1, 2013 11:08 am • linkreport

@Chris-every store I've been in recently sells reusable bags, including the grocery stores in PG Co. They are made of durable canvas and cost ~$2

by Tina on Mar 1, 2013 11:09 am • linkreport

The insulated bags are $2, regular non-insulated 99cents, at all Giant grocery stores.
http://www.giantfood.com/about_us/community/environment/index.htm

by Tina on Mar 1, 2013 11:13 am • linkreport

@Moco: I refuse to bring reusable bags

Why do you refuse to bring reusable bags?

by Miriam on Mar 1, 2013 11:13 am • linkreport

@Moco: Also I HATE the fact that baggers now overstuff the bags that I do get (I refuse to bring reusable bags), and they break. Seriously. Don't waste my time. I want bags. I want the milk in a bag. I live in MoCo, ergo I can afford the extra 25 cents to double bag things so they don't break. Just give me the damn bags. Rant over.

Use your words. That's what I tell my six year-old (well, it's what I told her when she was three, anyway), and it applies equally in this situation.

by dcd on Mar 1, 2013 11:20 am • linkreport

@ Miriam - I refuse because it's a pain. I can afford the bags, so should I have to complicate my life because some people can't seem to find a trash can for their litter?

@ Birdie - sometime's I'm still unloading a cart, sometimes they're faster than I am, sometimes they don't know what to single and double bag, sometimes they don't bag until I ask. In any case it slows me and everyone else down, which is annoying. Also don't get me started on stores that don't have bags in the self-checkout and you have to go looking for someone (looking at you Wheaton Giant).

by Moco on Mar 1, 2013 11:21 am • linkreport

@ DCD. You'd be surprised how many times I have to ask for bags and ask for double bags, yet the checker still asks for each individual item. "I'm going to put the eggs in a seperate bag is that ok?" "Should I also bag the milk?" "What about the cat litter?" I want the damn bags, I don't want to confirm that I want the bags with every item. You're wasting my time.

by Moco on Mar 1, 2013 11:24 am • linkreport

As a former grocery store cashier, people get really picky about their bags. Its impossible to predict what they want.

by drumz on Mar 1, 2013 11:26 am • linkreport

I want to speak up for the bag tax. I almost never bring my own bags but I love it because I never have to shout down a clerk who's about to double-bag a single item anymore. If I can carry it in my pocket, that bag is going in the trash the moment I pass a trash can.

by Lucre on Mar 1, 2013 11:34 am • linkreport

Moco, if you bring your own bags, you'll never have to go looking for bags again. You'll be able to bag everything exactly as you want it. And, you'll be doing your part in reducing our dependence on oil-based single use products. if you want to keep using plastic bags, fine, that's your choice, but the consequence of that choice is you need to communciate your bagging requests clearly to the cashier. As drumz said, peopl are picky, there's no way to predict what someone wants. Communciate communciate communicate. Nicely.

by Birdie on Mar 1, 2013 11:37 am • linkreport

@Moco- maybe you should just simplify your life further and have your groceries delivered. Giant has a service called PeaPod. Then you wouldn't have to interact or communicate with anyone, since clearly everyone is incapable and a nuisance. Well, the delivery driver would probably do something wrong every time, no doubt.

by Tina on Mar 1, 2013 11:42 am • linkreport

@Moco - it's not just about the people who can't seem to find a trash can for their litter. Plastic bags at landfills get swept up by the wind and carried away. And even when they stay in the landfill, they take loads to biodegrade (http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2007/06/will_my_plastic_bag_still_be_here_in_2507.html). The main point is that these plastic bags are just incredibly harmful for the environment and there is a reasonable alternative: paper (or reusable) bags.

by 7r3y3r on Mar 1, 2013 11:44 am • linkreport

It's nice to see Barry and Wells working together as colleagues...especially considering how they are perceived as polar opposites. I'm sure the standing ovation Barry received made his day.

There obviously still need to be some re-education in some stores. I also realize that baggers have long been taught not to mix produce w/meats and other items. Since most of my grocery shopping is done on a whim, I rarely have them w/me when I go in. I'll usually pay $2/month for bags so I can have them home.

But if you want a good sturdy bag, you gotta love Sur la Table's. I mean, who doesn't love that store.

by HogWash on Mar 1, 2013 11:49 am • linkreport

@7r3y3r -please don't promote paper as a better substitute to plastic. Its not.

The production and transport of paper bags uses large factors of energy more than plastic and their production is a major source of water pollution and contributes to deforestation.

Paper is not a superior substitute. The best practice is to eschew disposable bags altogether, and if you must use them, RE-use them as much as possible.

by Tina on Mar 1, 2013 11:51 am • linkreport

@David Alpert - not sure if you're in touch with the legislators involved with this bill but the legislation, as currently written, could allow for a county (such as MoCo) to repeal its bag tax after the state enacts this proposed law and not be subejt to any bag tax. The exemption should read something to the effect of "Section Blah-Blah-Blah applies only to a county that does not have a county-administered disposable carryout bag fee program currently in force."

by 7r3y3r on Mar 1, 2013 11:53 am • linkreport

Smart move on Wells' part. He seems to be making all the right moves to position himself for his mayoral run. Personally, I think the guy is great. Although, it will be a tough choice for me if Gray runs again also.

by H Street LL on Mar 1, 2013 11:57 am • linkreport

@Moco: You'd be surprised how many times I have to ask for bags and ask for double bags, yet the checker still asks for each individual item. "I'm going to put the eggs in a seperate bag is that ok?" "Should I also bag the milk?" "What about the cat litter?" I want the damn bags, I don't want to confirm that I want the bags with every item. You're wasting my time.

I don't know what to tell you. Many (most) people bring their own bags now, so if you want them you're going to have to talk to people. If you're very particular about the way in which you want your groceries bagged, that's doubly true. This seems like one of those things to which you should just resign yourself.

You sound like a real treat, by the way.

by dcd on Mar 1, 2013 11:57 am • linkreport

St. Tommy Wells and the ex-Mayor-for-Life: That's an odd couple, buddy road trip flick I would pay to see.

by Creative Urbanist13 on Mar 1, 2013 12:05 pm • linkreport

@Tina -

"The best practice is to eschew disposable bags altogether, and if you must use them, RE-use them as much as possible."

Yes, exactly my point. So we need a better quality 5-cent bag that doesn't tear in the first 30 minutes and can be reused a couple times before disposal. I'm quite sure this used to be the case, but recently the plastic has gotten thinner and thinner.

by Chris on Mar 1, 2013 12:11 pm • linkreport

@Chris-there is "a better quality" reusable bag available for purchase at Giant for $1. It can be re-used for a decade, or more. I expect my reusable canvas bags to survive me. Why go for something that can be used "a couple of time before disposal"? That sounds wasteful to me.

by Tina on Mar 1, 2013 12:20 pm • linkreport

@ Sand Box John:I am against this tax for selfish reasons

Well, I am sure you won't mind me not giving a crap for selfish reasons.

@MoCo:I have to say the bag tax is one of the more annoying things about living in the county.

More annoying than traffic? More annoying than crime? More annoying than PEPCO? MoCo's restrictive liquor laws? Your life must be awesome!

by Jasper on Mar 1, 2013 12:38 pm • linkreport

"I can afford the bags, so should I have to complicate my life because some people can't seem to find a trash can for their litter?...
... Also don't get me started on stores that don't have bags in the self-checkout and you have to go looking for someone (looking at you Wheaton Giant)."

Wait a minute - mad cash for doublebagging, but shopping at the Wheaton Giant? Something does not compute.

by Chris on Mar 1, 2013 12:51 pm • linkreport

I am a big fan of the DC bag tax. I've done clean up at on the Anacostia River and you can really see the difference since the bag tax was enacted. It's not a big deal. If you don't want to pay th 5 cents, its not that hard to keep reusable bags in your car or purse. There are even collabsable bags that take up about a wallet size of space.

by I. Rex on Mar 1, 2013 12:58 pm • linkreport

A point and a question:

To Chris who's asking for higher-quality bags: if I'm not mistaken, these bags are made from a petroleum byproduct, at extremely low cost. Better bags don't benefit the stores; they don't get to keep the extra 5c, so they don't have an incentive to switch.

Second, I've been curious how these taxes are collected. When grocery stores buy, say, a 1000-pack of grocery bags, do they need to pay an extra $50 up-front? Or is the bag tax self-reported?

by Austin on Mar 1, 2013 1:43 pm • linkreport

@Austin: Stores pay after the fee is collected from the shopper, on a monthly or quarterly basis. So, yes, self-reported. But if they report incorrectly, they can be cited for noncompliance. (report stores here: http://ddoe.dc.gov/baglawtip )

by Julie Lawson on Mar 1, 2013 2:01 pm • linkreport

@Austin

The store get .01c as a small incentive to actually charge. I believe it is self-reported. Even that .01c for a store like Giant is a large number on a monthly basis.

by Kyle-W on Mar 1, 2013 2:02 pm • linkreport

@Miriam and Jasper:

My selfish reason has to do with the fact that I make use of these bags in a responsible way instead of tossing them aside to litter the environment.

Nothing piss me off more then being behind some irresponsible jerk throwing trash out his car window.

I see no reason why I should be punished in the form of a tax for the irresponsible actions of others.

I also find it amusing when politicians propose taxes to effect the behavior on one group of people then turn around and propose a different tax on another group of people, and say with a straight face, "This tax will not effect their behavior."

by Sand Box John on Mar 1, 2013 2:02 pm • linkreport

I see no reason why I should be punished in the form of a tax for the irresponsible actions of others.

And if people could handle their drinking better we'd probably have lower taxes on Alcohol.

by drumz on Mar 1, 2013 2:13 pm • linkreport


"I see no reason why I should be punished in the form of a tax for the irresponsible actions of others."

The reason of course is that its not cost effective to trace how each person disposes of each bag and charge them for improper disposal. That is unfortunate, but sometimes life is that way.

"I also find it amusing when politicians propose taxes to effect the behavior on one group of people then turn around and propose a different tax on another group of people, and say with a straight face, "This tax will not effect their behavior"

some behaviors are more elastic with respect to price than other behaviors. Whether the politicians in question are basing themselves on that I do not know, since I do not know what tax you are contrasting with the bag tax.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 1, 2013 2:13 pm • linkreport

"And if people could handle their drinking better we'd probably have lower taxes on Alcohol."

back when I was 19, the drinking age was raised to 21, because of teens engaged in drunk driving.

At the time I did not have a drivers licences, and used transit, biking and walking to get anywhere.

Sometimes we punished for the behavior of others. Its hard to avoid.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 1, 2013 2:15 pm • linkreport

@Sand Box John: I see no reason why I should be punished in the form of a tax for the irresponsible actions of others.

I don't understand how it's punishment to have to pay five cents for a plastic bag, if you want a plastic bag?

by Miriam on Mar 1, 2013 3:02 pm • linkreport

It's not just littering. Plastic does not biodegrade. Landfills are stuffed with bags. Yes, it's definitely better to throw them out in the trash than in the river obviously. But reduction of overall plastic bag use is in itself a worthy goal. Charging a nominal fee for things is one way to do that.

by Alan B. on Mar 1, 2013 3:14 pm • linkreport

[This comment has been deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by Jack Jackson on Mar 1, 2013 4:18 pm • linkreport

@Tina
"-there is "a better quality" reusable bag available for purchase at Giant for $1. It can be re-used for a decade, or more. I expect my reusable canvas bags to survive me. Why go for something that can be used "a couple of time before disposal"? That sounds wasteful to me."

As I mentioned I uses the bags for raw garbage in the kitchen (like the scraps you scrape off your plate after dinner). I don't think $1 canvas bags are the answer. I suspect they would leak. Plus the idea is seal them and throw them away to avoid stinking up the kitchen or attracting fruit flies. Finally, throwing away a reusable $1 bag every couple of days seems wasteful.

That's why I'm a 5-cent bag fan. I'd just like something that doesn't spontaneously decompose during the drive home from the supermarket. That's too much to ask for for my 5 cents, is it? If it takes 6 or 7 cents that's fine too.

by Chris on Mar 1, 2013 6:40 pm • linkreport

http://www.glad.com/

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 1, 2013 7:44 pm • linkreport

Nah, I don't need the name brand - I prefer to give my business to my local supermarket.

Besides, the beauty of it is the ability to reuse something that was intended to become instant trash. If I separately buy bags then I'm creating new waste.

by Chris on Mar 1, 2013 8:32 pm • linkreport

I find the reusable bags much easier to carry, particularly for heavier items. The strap handles are much easier on my hands and wrists, they're much less likely to break, and I can put much more in one bag so I don't have several bags banging against my knee as I'm trying to walk at the same time.

by Frank IBC on Mar 1, 2013 9:44 pm • linkreport

...get a trash can with a lid.

by Tina on Mar 1, 2013 11:27 pm • linkreport

Why not just tax all bags 5 cents regardless of type or kind of store coming from. In addition they should put videos on each governments website showing how the bag tax has helped the river and not just taking someones word for it. Quite frankly I find some other things worst for the environment and people than bags such as spitting, smoking, public eating (never know who's allergic to peanuts) and public urination of humans or pets

People not carrying bags all the time is a valid point how many males carry a bag in general all the time; the most i see males carry bags are either coming from a store, going to school or sometimes going to work during leisure most males dont carry anything.

by kk on Mar 2, 2013 12:14 pm • linkreport

The bag tax in Montgomery goes way too far, every bag sold is subject to 5 cent tax, even if you want to buy something at Macy's or the Sports Authority which does not sell food unlike DC's bag tax which only singles out grocery stores and restaurants. There are some cases in Montgomery County where you are forced to pay the fee, such as buying a suit from Jos A.Bank or dishes from Crate and Barrel. Shoplifting is up in grocery stores since the bag tax was in effect because its easier to conceal items in reusable bags, also there is risk of disease unless you have to wash out those bags costing us more money in detergent and cleaning supplies.

Marion Barry is a divisive politician, pitting people of different races against each other. My Dad who gave lots of money to Obama's reelection fund back when used to he lived in DC voted for Carol Schwartz over Barry. I wish the people of Ward 8 would "have courage" to vote him out of office next time he is running for reelection. I think that is why you don't see many businesses opening up in that Ward is that they are waiting until he is no longer the Council member there.

by JZR on Mar 2, 2013 5:30 pm • linkreport

@JZR:

The bag tax in Montgomery goes way too far, every bag sold is subject to 5 cent tax, even if you want to buy something at Macy's or the Sports Authority which does not sell food unlike DC's bag tax which only singles out grocery stores and restaurants. There are some cases in Montgomery County where you are forced to pay the fee, such as buying a suit from Jos A.Bank or dishes from Crate and Barrel.

I agree completely! Asking people to pay 5 cents for a bag for a $200 suit or $100 set of dishes is just going way too far. This is the kind of draconian government policy that imposes ABSOLUTELY ENORMOUS costs on consumers (5 cent charges add up so fast!), while providing ABSOLUTELY NO benefits to anyone. I mean, who ever heard of decreased disposable bag usage being a good thing for anyone? And it's not remotely possible for us to change our behavior to avoid the bag fees.

We simply cannot stand for this sort of policy overreach!

by Gray on Mar 2, 2013 6:04 pm • linkreport

"Shoplifting is up in grocery stores since the bag tax was in effect because its easier to conceal items in reusable bags"

Source, JZR?

by Frank IBC on Mar 2, 2013 7:51 pm • linkreport

We don't know yet about Montgomery County, but in DC the above Washington City Paper link validates my point exactly.

by JZR on Mar 2, 2013 8:18 pm • linkreport

Sorry about that here is my source for shoplifting increases in DC since the bag tax was in effect, although I don't have a source for Montgomery County, I bet the same thing is happening there:
http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/housingcomplex/2011/11/01/safeway-bag-tax-causes-theft/

by JZR on Mar 2, 2013 8:21 pm • linkreport

The article doesn't say that theft is actually happening due to the bags.

by Frank IBC on Mar 2, 2013 9:43 pm • linkreport

Lots of people in NoVa use reusable bags despite there being no bag tax, just for their enviro beliefs. Its not like stores don't allow canvas bags in because there's no tax.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 3, 2013 12:16 am • linkreport

@AWalkerInTheCity

How do you know that they are doing it for the environment rather than due to

1 also shopping in DC & Maryland and started it because they are use to it there

2 some stores giving out discount for using reusable bags

by kk on Mar 3, 2013 3:04 am • linkreport

I know from personal experience. Thats why we do it.

People do it at stores that do not offer discounts. And I doubt that everyone who does so at such a store has recently moved from MD or DC (recall those places have not had it be mandatory for that long) most NoVans have lived here more than a couple of years, and most new NoVans came directly from outside the greater washington region.

But your point about discounts reinforces my point - the point is anyone can bring in a canvas bag is they want for whichever reason. Its not like nova stores ban them to keep you from shoplifting, and the mandate would stop that.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 3, 2013 8:23 am • linkreport

How many people buy groceries in all three states on a regular basis?

by Frank IBC on Mar 3, 2013 12:58 pm • linkreport

Sandbox, if you want plastic bags, you don't even have to pay 5 cents for them. You can buy them online for less. That's how I get dog waste bags.

by David C on Mar 3, 2013 4:55 pm • linkreport

Again? Please stop going after the family who does their weekly groceries and direct your efforts to the "discretional polluters," those who patronize Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, McDonalds (and the like) and toss their rubbish wherever they please. Most of us use and re-use our plastic bags at home and dispose of them properly such that their environmental cost, including production, and impact are practically nil. You're just after where the money is instead of tackling the problem. Enough already.

by Boater on Mar 4, 2013 3:18 pm • linkreport

@Boater-plastic doesn't degrade. The impact of plastics in our environment and on our health is much much greater than "nil". By-products from the production of plastics and the presence of plastics in the environment increase risk for cancer. There is compelling evidence for both human health reasons and environmental quality reasons to reduce paper & plastic production, plastics in the environment & plastic litter.

Regarding this argument that the bag fee is disproportionately burdensome to people with fewer financial means -- are you saying you think people with less means are too stupid to re-use a bag for shopping, or too lazy?

by Tina on Mar 5, 2013 4:28 pm • linkreport

@FrankIBC
Here is another example which is more valid that bag bans and/or fees lead to shoplifting in Seattle where they have a bag tax. I doubt that the people in DC/MD are more honest. The example is at the link below:
http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/feb/28/seattle-spike-shoplifting-illness-plastic-bag-ban/

by JZR on Mar 10, 2013 2:33 pm • linkreport

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