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BYOB: A Guide to Prompting a Culture Shift

by Karen Hosler
Tuesday, 7 July 2009

The great success story is Ireland, where a 15 Euro-cent plastic bag tax imposed in 2002 quickly resulted in a 90 percent drop in bag use.

I need some help to break the disposable bag habit.

I know those ubiquitous plastic grocery bags are a major source of litter on both land and sea, and that such debris can poison fish and choke wildlife. I’ve cringed at bags stuck in trees along the highway and twisted in tall grasses that line tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. Yet, a reusable cloth bag languishes in the back seat of my car, utterly forgotten until it mocks me when I return from shopping carrying more of the wretched plastic things.

Luckily, there’s new hope for anti-bag action from the nation’s capital. The District of Columbia City Council recently approved a 5-cent fee on plastic and paper bags dispensed by groceries, restaurants, liquor stores, and quick marts beginning in January. Amazingly, the vote was unanimous.

D.C.’s shut-out victory comes at a time when the Baltimore City Council is struggling to gain traction on a similar measure, the Philadelphia City Council rejected a plastic bag ban outright and the Annapolis City Council, an early leader in the anti-bag debate, seems to have given up on the effort.

Lessons from the legislative drive led by D.C. City Councilman Tommy Wells could guide anti-bag crusaders elsewhere. He said he designed it like an election campaign. He mastered his subject, learned from mistakes elsewhere, built a coalition of supporters, framed the debate, muted or isolated the opposition and essentially had the battle already won when he introduced the bill in February with 12 of 13 council members as lead sponsors.

Some key bits of wisdom gleaned:

A fee on both paper and plastic bags is more practical than a plastic ban. Plastic bags are cheaper than paper. Thus, a proposal to ban plastic draws fierce opposition from merchants and fails to address the environmental and energy costs of paper. A tax or fee—call it what you will--can be put toward a clean-up fund, but the real goal is to inspire shoppers to bring their own bag.

The great success story is Ireland, where a 15 Euro-cent plastic bag tax imposed in 2002 quickly resulted in a 90 percent drop in bag use. Merchants were discouraged from offering paper alternatives, so most Irish shoppers started carrying cloth bags. When plastic bag use started to creep back up in 2006, the bag levy was raised by another seven cents in 2007, and the trend reversed. Baltimore is considering a 25-cent bag fee for maximum effect. But Wells feared a high fee couldn’t pass and believes the Irish proved the smaller levy can also work.

The anti-bag campaign should be built around a clear environmental mission. In Washington, the cause was the Anacostia River--a long troubled waterway polluted by 20,000 tons of trash a year, of which half is plastic bags. In Ireland, there was great concern about the loss of the fabled green countryside, which was being spoiled by unsightly plastic bags. Neither Baltimore nor Philadelphia has so clearly identified such a rallying point.

Chief among the talking points of the American Chemistry Council, which represents plastic bag makers, is that bag fees amount to a tax on the poor.

Don’t let the opposition turn the debate on class and income. Chief among the talking points of the American Chemistry Council, which represents plastic bag makers, is that bag fees amount to a tax on the poor. This powerful argument has been embraced by Baltimore City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, and could well doom the legislation.

In similar circumstances, Wells fought back two ways. He discovered that many of the elderly poor shop at discount groceries that are able to lower their food prices by charging for bags. Thus, he could argue that free bags for the rich and lazy are effectively being subsidized by the poor.

Beyond that, Wells contended it was insulting to suggest that poor people don’t care about the environment. Here, again, the Anacostia was a particularly helpful symbol. It flows through Washington’s poorest neighborhoods, and lacks the prestige of the iconic Potomac. Cleaning up the Anacostia thus became a social justice issue.

Washington’s experience should mark a turning point in the anti-bag debate. Neither convenience nor tough times justifies maintaining this destructive practice. Mary Pat Clarke, a Baltimore city councilwoman who has long championed the anti-bag cause, predicts some form of bag restriction will pass this year.

As for me, I’ve got two cloth bags riding shotgun now. I still forget to take them into stores, but return with my hands full of un-bagged stuff to avoid the bags’ reproach.

Guilt only accomplishes so much, though. Take it from the Irish, a good kick in the fee department can work wonders.

Karen Hosler, a former editorial writer for the Baltimore Sun, is a reporter and commentator for 88.1 WYPR in Baltimore. This article is distributed by Bay Journal News Service. Visit or call 410-972-2470 to learn more about this service or to access its past columns and news and feature stories.

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This story was published on July 7, 2009.