By Dan Behrend
At the Jan. 10 and Jan. 31 College Park City Council meetings, councilmembers discussed a proposal to regulate the ways in which retail businesses, including restaurants, provide shopping bags to customers. The proposed ordinance would ban plastic carryout bags and would require stores to charge customers a minimum $0.10 fee for paper or new reusable bags.
Businesses could continue to provide plastic bags, free of charge, for certain items within the store, including bulk items at grocery and hardware stores, bakery goods, ice, dry-cleaned clothes, and for wrapping items like meat, fish and flowers. The ordinance would also designate a week each year when businesses could offer free reusable bags to their customers.
The ordinance aims to promote the city’s sustainability goals by reducing shoppers’ reliance on single-use bags.
Martha Ainsworth, of the Prince George’s Sierra Club, and Sarah Price, with the Maryland Retailers Association, attended the Jan. 10 council meeting and spoke in support of the proposed legislation. Price said that they took a close look at the draft ordinance and were supportive of the $0.10 fee, which would help offset retailers’ costs for paper bags and set consistent expectations for customers. The proposal would also set a floor for the bag fee, which would quell inadvertent competition among businesses.
Councilmember Kate Kennedy (District 1) noted that the combined support from the Sierra Club and the Maryland Retailers Association should help establish broad community support, as well. Retailers largely understand and are concerned about the environmental issues generated by plastic waste, including single-use bags.
Councilmember John Rigg (District 3) expressed support for the bill and requested that the city’s implementation include distribution of reusable bags in targeted locations to ensure support for people who may struggle to afford bag fees. College Park Department of Public Works Director Robert Marsili responded that staff already included a placeholder in the upcoming budget for reusable bags.
Economic Development Director Michael Williams said that he spoke to between 150 to 175 College Park retailers, including restaurants, about the proposal.
Williams estimated that 75 to 80% of these businesses were receptive to the ordinance. He noted that smaller businesses generally did not object to the proposed ordinance to the idea but had questions related to the transition period and how the legislation would be implemented.
At the Nov. 15 city council meeting, Todd Larsen and Alexa Bely of the city’s Committee for a Better Environment (CBE) presented the proposed legislation and described the policy goals.
According to data included in the proposal, College Park residents use 12.7 million plastic carryout bags per year. The CBE document included with the proposal noted that consumers typically use a plastic bag for less than 15 minutes, while those same bags remain “in the environment beyond our lifetimes.”
CBE’s presentation underscored that plastic bags pollute our natural spaces and waterways. It takes an estimated 1,000 years for a plastic bag to break down in the landfill. Even when they do degrade, the bags break down into microplastics (i.e., plastic debris smaller than 5 millimeters in length) which absorb toxins, pollute soil and water, and may be consumed by wildlife and humans.
While some may advocate for recycling plastic bags, rather than ban them, the proposal noted that data from the Environmental Protection Agency shows that fewer than 5% of plastic bags are recycled.
The proposal also stated that discarded plastic bags pose a major problem to the city’s trash collection efforts. The county has not accepted plastic bags as part of its curbside single-stream recycling program since July 2015. Despite this, residents still put plastic bags in their recycling bins, and those bags end up clogging the machinery at the county’s recycling facilities. Indeed, plastic bags are the leading source of contamination in the city’s recycling program.
This contamination is costly, with the county spending approximately $125,000 annually to remove plastic bag debris from the sorting equipment. This expense represents wages and time that could be spent completing other tasks — and the bag debris also endangers workers.
At the Nov. 15 meeting, Councilmember Susan Whitney (District 2) said that she had tried to recycle plastic bags at MOM’s Organic Market (MOM’S), but when she arrived at MOM’s, she discovered that the store had removed the collection bins. MOM’s made this move after learning that the company they sent the bags for recycling was incinerating them instead.
While some retail stores accept plastic bags for recycling, a recent report estimated that only 2% of plastic grocery bags are actually recycled into new products.
Charging a fee for shopping bags affects consumer behavior, and data gathered locally supports this fact. In a 2019 survey of grocery stores in Prince George’s County, the Sierra Club found that when stores offered bags to customers at no additional cost, as is the case at local Shoppers, Giant and Safeway stores, 88.2% of customers used store-provided disposable bags, 99.4% of which were plastic, while only 5.9% of customers used reusable bags that they brought to the store. At stores that charged for carryout bags (i.e., Aldi and Lidl), the ratio flipped — only 5.9% of customers used disposable bags, while the rest used reusable bags, or no bags at all.
CBE conducted a similar survey in College Park and found that when grocery stores offered free plastic bags, 75% of customers used them. At the Lidl on Baltimore Avenue, which does not offer plastic bags and charges for paper and reusable bags, 80% of shoppers use their own bags, or no bags at all.
The $0.10 minimum fee put forth by the ordinance for paper or other reusable bags would not be a tax or generate revenue for the city. Instead, retailers would retain the proceeds to offset the cost of paper bags.
The city lacks the authority to impose a bag tax. However, an advisory opinion from the Office of the Maryland Attorney General found that municipalities like the City of College Park “have the authority to enact an ordinance that prohibits the distribution of single use plastic carryout bags by retailers and further requires that retailers charge a fee for the use of paper carryout bags.”
If it adopts the legislation, College Park would join several Maryland jurisdictions that regulate plastic shopping bags through bans or fees, including Baltimore, Chestertown, Easton, Laurel, Salisbury, Takoma Park, Westminster, Howard County and Montgomery County. College Park also would join a growing group: 10 states here in the U.S., hundreds of cities around the world and some 127 countries regulate the availability of single-use plastic bags. Hyattsville is currently considering legislation similar to the proposal under consideration in College Park.
Prince George’s County is now the only jurisdiction inside the Beltway that does not currently charge a plastic bag fee. Legislators have unsuccessfully sought to regulate the use of single-use shopping bags at the county and state levels for more than a decade.
In 2012, the Prince George County’s delegation to the General Assembly proposed a bill to permit the county to tax plastic bags (that bill failed). Similar efforts by the county delegation failed in 2019 and 2020. The Maryland General Assembly failed to pass a statewide ban on plastic carryout bags proposed during both the 2020 and 2021 legislative sessions.
At their Jan. 31 meeting, the mayor and council discussed a possible effective date for the ordinance, as well. . The council plans to hold a public hearing and vote on the ordinance at their Feb. 14 meeting; if they approve the ordinance, it may go into effect as soon as September. For more information about city council meetings, go to collegeparkmd.gov/councilmeeting.