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Supporters of an effort to reduce the use of plastic and paper bags say a proposed new fee would help encourage shoppers to consider the environment at the same time they are looking for the best deals. (File)

Md. bag bill would create new fee; some retailers balk

ANNAPOLIS — Supporters of an effort to reduce the use of plastic and paper bags say a proposed new fee would help encourage shoppers to consider the environment at the same time they are looking for the best deals.

Environmentalists say House Bill 31, which will be part of a House Environment and Transportation hearing Wednesday, is meant to reduce the amount of plastic bag litter in trees and waterways but also to force a behavioral change and move consumers to reusable cloth and plastic shopping bags.

Delegate Brooke Lierman. (File)

Delegate Brooke Lierman. (File)

“Education just hasn’t worked,” said Del. Brooke E. Lierman, D-Baltimore City and sponsor of the bill. “We’ve just seen that it’s not enough to clean up our parks and clean up our waterways. Education just isn’t enough at this point.”

This is the second year for the bill. Opponents say it amounts to a tax and a burden on businesses and consumers.

“The bill continues to change, but our concerns remain the same,” said Ellen Valentino, a lobbyist who represents convenience stores in Maryland that oppose the legislation. “This is a tax and a burden on people who use convenience stores.”

The proposal would not impose an outright ban on plastic bags. Instead, the bill allows retailers to charge for the bags — as little as a penny per bag. A slight change to this year’s legislation allows retailers to sell customers reusable shopping bags that are made out of higher quality, often recycled, plastic material.

Violators who give out free plastic bags would be subject to a $100 fine per instance.

A 10 cent fee would also be placed on each paper bag given to a customer. Lierman called it an attempt to help retailers cover their costs though she acknowledges that some retailers may very well build the costs of paper and plastic bags into their product pricing.

“Baltimore retailers have had a very tough year. Certainly grocers and stores like those operate on very thin margins and to require them to stop using plastic bags and require them to use paper bags without allowing them to charge an appropriate fee for it would really hurt them or it would increase the cost of groceries quite a bit,” Lierman said.

Lierman acknowledged that businesses have the ability to impose fees on the bags already and that part of the 10 cent per bag surcharge would ultimately go to state and local government. But she said the fee is “not a tax.”

“It’s not required,” Lierman said. “Nobody needs to pay it. It’s totally up to you. You go in and buy a can of beans. You go in and buy a paper bag. You have to pay for that can of beans and now you also have to pay for the paper bag, unless you bring your own.”

Retailers can keep up to 7 cents if they offer a discount to customers who bring their own reusable shopping bags. The retailer would send up to 5 cents to the state comptroller,who would use the money to offset the cost of administering the program. Money left over would be disbursed to local governments for use in stormwater management and pollution reduction programs and for fresh food financing.

“It’s a tax and mandate scheme and will hurt consumers,” Valentino said. “People who tend to shop at convenience stores often times walk to them. They would be disproportionately burdened.”

And because plastic bags would be sold rather than given way, Valentino said the legislation sets up an uneven playing field for retailers depending on their location.

Such bans and fees are not a new idea.

Last year, a similar bill died in the Senate. Lierman withdrew her legislation after it was rejected by two different committees.

In Montgomery County, a similar law took effect nearly four years ago. Officials there say it appears to be working.

“Cleanup groups are finding much fewer plastic bags in County waterways,” said Patrick Lacefield, a county spokesman.

Lacefield said most residents avoid paying the fees by declining the bags, and so far the county is not looking to change how its law works.

In Baltimore City, a ban on plastic bags was vetoed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. The bill was reintroduced last year. Currently, the city attempts to reduce plastic bag use through an education campaign aimed at encouraging the use of reusable bags.

California enacted a statewide measure, which is on hold as it will be part of a referendum on the 2016 ballot.

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