Last weekend, while heading down to my parent’s house in Montgomery County, I stopped quickly into Trader Joe’s to pick up a couple of things. My family waiting in the car, I rushed in and out quickly and was surprised when I eventually glanced at the receipt. I had gotten charged 5 cents for my paper bag.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. I knew that effective Jan. 1, 2012 Montgomery County was implementing a bag tax, but for some reason I thought it was going to be only for plastic bags. Not so.
Montgomery County Law 8-11 requires that all retail establishments in the county that “sell goods and provide their customers a carryout bag (either paper or plastic) to carry their purchases out of the store charge 5-cents per bag” as explained by the County’s website.
Not confined to Montgomery County, this has recently become a state-wide issue. Other counties, including Howard and Prince George’s, are among those considering and researching a similar tax.
In addition, as a “top priority in 2012,” The Maryland League of Conservation Voters has put forth the state-wide Clean the Streams & Beautify the Bay Act of 2012, which includes a similar bag tax.
Montgomery’s bag tax follows the 5 cent bag tax enacted in Washington, D.C. in 2010, which resulted in “a decrease in consumption from 22.5 million to 3 million bags in the first month alone” according to Brian Merchant of Treehugger.com. And yet in Virginia, bills including a 20-cent and 5-cent bag tax failed to pass the state senate, as noted by The Virginian Pilot.
According to a recent article on the Ellicott City Patch, most counties in Maryland need state legislative approval to pass a tax. Baltimore, Baltimore County, and Montgomery County are the only jurisdictions that do not. Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamentez has “no interest in pursuing a bag tax,” said county spokeswoman Ellen Kobler.
Carroll County commissioners also said the bag tax wouldn’t become a reality in their area any time soon.
Opinion is split.
In the comments section of this same article, reader Ohai asked, “Aren't these plastic bags recyclable? Are these plastic bags a bigger problem than bottled water? What about the environmental impact of decorating your house with lights for the holidays? All that electricity comes from burning oil. At any rate, I like the approach of Trader Joe's [and Target]. Give people a discount if they bring their own bags.”
Mike Hayes added, “A bag tax is just another money grab by the politicians…” and in an article I wrote in March 2011 for Ellicott City Patch I listed some of the pros and cons of such legislation:
Pros: reduce the volume of waste, great for the environment if it convinces people to bring their own bags, could raise a lot of money for the county, could be a step towards additional legislation to encourage consumers to make decisions that respect and protect the environment.
Cons: more money out of our pockets, more burden on business owners, could be a step towards additional legislation ...
You see where this is going.
The argument rages on both sides.
A plastic bag levy introduced in Ireland in 2002 resulted in a reduction of more than 90 percent in the issuing of plastic shopping bags, according to the Irish Government’s Dept. of Environment, Heritage, and Local Government.
In addition, a 2008 ban on free plastic bags in China resulted in a 2/3 reduction in the issuing of plastic bags, according to a March 2009 study in Journal of Sustainable Development. In China plastic bags are still available, but the levy of 5 Chinese Yuan Renminbi (about US$0.79) per bag is in effect at any and every store, everywhere.
Of course, there are other issues too.
When you consider paper or plastic or reusable bags, the implications go beyond money and the environment. You need to think about the health and safety of your family. In a November 2010 column I noted that “the issue suddenly becomes more complicated as lead and bacteria are found in…reusable grocery bags.”
I also found out the following:
An investigation by The Tampa Tribune found excessive amounts of lead in reusable bags bought at major retailers. The lead appeared to be in a form that's not easily extracted or "leached" out, but the question is twofold – could the toxin rub off on food, and will these bags eventually accumulate in landfills and create an environmental hazard? over time, laboratory experts told The Tampa Tribune, the bags break down and paint can flake off. Lead was used in the paint to add color, opaqueness and durability; it has been banned in wall paint in the U.S. since the late 1970s.
Canada's Times Colonist reports the results of a study that tested random samples of reusable grocery bags: of the bags tested, 64 percent were contaminated with "some level of bacteria," about 30 percent had "elevated bacterial counts" higher than what is considered safe for drinking water, 40 percent of the bags had yeast or mould, and some of the bags had "an unacceptable presence of coliforms."
What’s your take on all of this? Is it about money, politics, the environment, health? All of the above?