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Maryland needs to decisively address plastic bags

The first time I shopped in the Giant closest to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, I was surprised at a missing step in the checkout process: Paying for any plastic bags that a customer uses. I had gotten used to the practice at my local Giant in Montgomery County. Instituting a charge plastic bags or banning them altogether is an effective way to reduce their use and it should become a state-wide policy.

The five cent per bag charge I’ve gotten used to may seem like it won’t accomplish much, but in reality it can be a significant deterrent to using plastic bags. Since reusable bags are available in many stores, the charge can encourage people to buy those instead, because even though they’re more expensive at first, they end up saving money in the long run.

I see almost as many plastic bags blowing around parking lots, caught in trees or floating in bodies of water as I do in the self-checkout area of a grocery store, which is a major problem of plastic bags: They present a direct source of pollution. They are nonbiodegradable and have an extremely long life. In addition, the petroleum-based bags contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and therein global warming.

For many people, there are other viable options, including the more durable reusable bags that are readily available at many grocery stores or transporting items to a vehicle via a cart. Costco, Aldi’s and Save-a-Lot have done just fine without offering people any kind of bag for their groceries, and the extra trips to and from the car help me reach my step count for the day.

A plastic bag ban for Baltimore City was recently signed into law, and will take effect next year. Howard County also passed legislation to implement a five cent fee, which will take effect in October of this year. Individual parts of Maryland are doing what is right and taking action to address the issues with plastic bags, but a unified decision for the state needs to follow.

A ban would be the ideal action to erase the possibility of plastic bags altogether, but there are situations in which people forget their reusable bag or just want something to hold an item. A statewide fee is a viable alternative that still encourages a reduction in the use of plastic bags, while providing people with a choice.

Maryland state representatives and state senators are discussing legislation to completely ban the use of the plastic bags at checkout, but the proposed bills aren’t without issue.

Some have objected to provisions in the bills that would prevent individual counties from keeping the money that comes from the plastic bag fees, which has been used for programs like Montgomery County’s Water Quality Protection Charge Fund.

The provisions that prevent individual counties from benefiting from the fees shouldn’t be part of the bills that could bring Maryland into the future alongside other states like New York, which recently passed a plastic bag ban, or California, which banned them several years ago.

Any legislation that passes regarding plastic bags should also account for people at an economic disadvantage who can’t necessarily afford to pay the plastic bag fee, or for reusable bags and don’t have cars to transport their items home, but progress can still be made.

It’s a question of values. Maryland has to decide whether they are willing to let the desire for convenience contribute to our planet’s deterioration, and soon. In the meantime, the state continues to miss out on opportunities for economic gain.