Tuesday, June 11, 2013
Foam polystyrene (often called by the brand name Styrofoam) comprises a third of the litter in the Harris Creek watershed, explained Dr. Ray Bahr, a local activist. This litter winds up in the Baltimore Harbor, which is plagued by floating debris.
The bill, #12-0104, was introduced by Councilmember Jim Kraft (D-District 1) last July. It received favorable reports from numerous City agencies, and the committee heard public testimony today. Councilmembers Robert Curran (District 3), Bill Henry (District 4), Warren Branch (District 13), and Mary Pat Clarke (District 14) joined Kraft in voting favorably.
The bill now moves to the full 15-member Council, with a vote expected during Monday's session. Ten councilmembers joined Kraft as cosponsors on the legislation.
What is polystyrene? Many people know polystyrene foam by the trademarked name Styrofoam, but Styrofoam is just one brand name for one type of polystyrene. There are many other brands and types, including both foams and regular plastics. For example, polystyrene is commonly used in disposable plastic forks and spoons, plastic plates and cups, straws, and takeout containers. Anything with the recycling number 6 is polystyrene; it’s one of the most commonly used materials for disposable foodware.
What’s the problem? Polystyrene is also one of the most common components of litter pollution. A 2008 study found that fully 25% of trash in the Jones Falls in Baltimore was polystyrene foam containers. In large, open waterways, the composition is often higher: head down to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and you’re guaranteed to see bits and pieces of foam cups, plastic forks, and takeout containers bobbing along the waterfront.
This litter pollution makes Baltimore look dirty, invites crime, and harms wildlife. Polystyrene never biodegrades, but breaks down into small pieces which are consumed by marine life. Birds, turtles, and marine mammals can die from ingesting large amounts of this plastic. There are also emerging concerns that eating food out of polystyrene may be harmful to human health.
Unfortunately, polystyrene is very difficult and not economical to recycle. That’s why many cities are using bans to eliminate polystyrene.
|Littered polystyrene containers, like this one in the Inner Harbor, are dangerous to wildlife. |
(Photo: Baltimore Harborkeeper)
Will it cost more? You’ll often hear opponents of the ban talk about how it’s going to raise costs for consumers. In reality, the increased cost will only add a few cents to the price of a meal. What opponents don’t mention is the enormous cost that we are already paying to pick up polystyrene trash. Baltimore City alone spends $10 million every year on litter cleanup (and even so, there’s still tons of trash around the city!) The Baltimore Waterfront Partnership, an alliance of businesses in the Inner Harbor, spends an additional $300,000 in private funds just to clean litter in the harbor. The polystyrene industry is getting a pretty good deal by making us clean up their trash, and they would like us to continue footing the bill.
What’s more, Baltimore Harbor was recently declared to be “impaired” by trash under the Clean Water Act. That means Baltimore is legally required to reduce the amount of trash in the water. If we don’t, we will have to pay hefty fines to the federal government. So, we’re all paying one way or another -- either a few cents upfront for alternative containers, or after the fact, to clean up cheap polystyrene containers in our streets and streams. Why not cut the problem off at the source? As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Will it work? Nearly 50 cities around the US have successfully banned polystyrene food containers, with positive results. Polystyrene bans are spurring demand, innovation, and competition in other materials, which will ultimately reduce the cost of alternatives. Eventually, we anticipate that most food service containers will be recyclable or compostable, further reducing the cost for Baltimore to haul them away as garbage.
Some of you may remember when McDonalds made the big jump from polystyrene foam hamburger boxes to the paper wrappers they have today. When the change was first proposed, there was a tremendous uproar. The public couldn’t imagine buying hamburgers wrapped in paper. But of course, it wasn’t a big deal -- now we all expect to get sandwiches wrapped in paper, and hamburger-wrapper litter has declined dramatically. Let’s hope that Baltimore council members have the vision and courage to do the same for the rest of our polystyrene food containers!
Call your councilmember, and Council President Jack Young, today. Find their phone numbers here.
-by Bradley Kennedy
Thursday, May 23, 2013
As the 25th Annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup wraps up, we reflect back on the last couple of months of citizen action against litter. 14,238 volunteers at 616 sites, removed 574,000 lbs of trash including 193,800 beverage containers and 27,200 plastic bags from our Watershed in April. I attended several cleanup sites in Virginia this year, excited to check out places in my Watershed that I had not been to before. As I was sorting my beverage containers and collecting candy bar wrappers, I was also paying close attention to the plastic bags.
You see, over on the Maryland side of the river we have a five-cent disposable bag fee in Montgomery County that works to tackle one of our common sources of litter -- single use plastic bags. However, County Council Members have proposed an amendment to this policy that would exempt restaurants and all businesses where food is less than 2% of the gross sales. This proposed amendment to the bag fee policy will be difficult to enforce and has the potential to exempt some critical businesses. As I was tracking the plastic bags in Virginia, I found, just as I suspected, that all types of plastic bags are littered -- department stores, electronics store, hardware store, and boutiques. We must prevent this amendment from moving forward so we do not reverse the County’s efforts to end litter.
The hearing on this amendment is June 18. I urge you to please send letters and make phone calls to Council Members as well as send out Action Alerts to your friends, family, members, and volunteers. Every voice will be needed to prevent the amendment from passing. If you have any photos of littered plastic bags where you can clearly see the name of the business -- please send to email@example.com. Focus on stores that might be exempt with the amendment such as hardware stores, gas stations, department stores, and dollar stores.
To help you craft your message to Council Members here are a few talking points:
- Thank you for passing the bag fee legislation, ensuring that Montgomery County continues to lead the way for environmental change.
- The bag fee has been very helpful in reminding me to bring reusable bags to all the stores that I shop in, including department stores (hardware store, boutiques, etc).
- Even when I forget my bag and I choose to buy one, I don’t mind because I know that the money will go to support environmental projects.
- Many of the department stores I shop in even sell reusable bags, showing that they support their customers changing their behavior and using less disposable bags.
- I’m also thrilled to see my friends and neighbors refusing the unnecessary disposable bags at the store. (This is a great place to share personal anecdotes from your shopping experiences)
- And the intent of the legislation, to reduce litter, has been successful. We are seeing less plastic bags in our communities and waterways.
- by Laura Chamberlin, Alice Ferguson Foundation
Cross-posted from AFF's blog
Friday, April 19, 2013
On Saturday, March 23, the Economic Matters Committee of the Maryland House of Delegates voted down a measure that would have enabled counties to establish a 5-cent fee on disposable bags. The vote, 14-9 on a motion for an unfavorable report, effectively ended the possibility of passing a statewide bag law in 2013.
The Community Cleanup and Greening Act (HB 1086) originally proposed to enact the fee statewide, for the purpose of encouraging shoppers to replace disposable plastic and paper bags with reusable bags, reducing litter and improving county recycling streams. The Environmental Matters Committee passed the amended bill on Friday, March 22, by a vote of 17-4.
The bill was sponsored by Delegates Mary Washington (D-District 43, Baltimore City) and Michael Summers (D-District 47, Prince George's County), with 32 additional cosponsors. A companion bill in the Senate was sponsored by Senators Jamie Raskin (D-District 20, Montgomery County) and Brian Frosh (D-District 16, Montgomery County).
"We are very disappointed in the outcome," said Julie Lawson, Director of the Trash Free Maryland Alliance. "Our team, from grassroots activists to the bill's sponsors, ran an effective campaign and achieved a lot of momentum. We were very close to passing this bill and giving counties a tool they need to reduce pollution."
The committee vote came a day after a dramatic debate over the transportation fund on the House floor. Following the controversy, delegates who had previously expressed support for the bill flipped their positions.
"We are very grateful to Chairwoman Maggie McIntosh, Chairman Dereck Davis, and Speaker Mike Busch for their support in getting the bill so far," added Lawson. "Trash Free Maryland looks forward to continuing to work with them on ways to clean up Maryland's neighborhoods and waterways."
The Trash Free Maryland Alliance is a network of 60 organizations, businesses, and activists committed to reducing litter in Maryland, by pursuing policies at the state and local level.
Friday, March 22, 2013
Under current law, only Montgomery County, Baltimore County, and Baltimore City can establish this type of program. This proposal will allow all counties to establish a fee like Montgomery County has, where revenue is used for environmental purposes and to establish a program to assist low-income and elderly residents. Montgomery County residents have reduced their use of disposable bags by 60-70% since the fee took effect a year ago.
The committee voted 17-4 for a favorable report on the bill. Economic Matters must now also give it a favorable report before the bill reaches the House floor.
Friday, March 8, 2013
Tuesday, March 5, 2013
Nash Run is one of the dirtiest streams in the Anacostia River watershed. However, thanks to D.C’s 5-cent disposable bag fee, one major source of pollution is finally on the decline.
“Astronomical levels of trash” and “dirtiest of all streams” -- these are phrases used to describe the humble little Nash Run, a small tributary of the Anacostia River. Nash Run starts in Fairmount Heights, MD, and runs through the Deanwood neighborhood of DC before emptying into the Anacostia near the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. It is one of the biggest contributors of the litter pollution impairing the Anacostia River. But a study on this stream over the past 4 years offers hope that the litter problem can be reversed.
Before the bag fee, and for a short time after, the number of bags in the Anacostia seems to have actually been increasing. Data from a 2007-2008 yearlong survey by the District Department of the Environment show that the total number of bags found in eight tributary streams doubled in a single year. Of course, the absolute numbers of bags (and all litter) varies a lot depending on the weather, but this survey showed an increasing trend:
Chart from Anacostia River Trash Reduction Plan, referring to monitoring study results from Summer 2007 to Spring 2008, before the bag fee. “Number” is the total # of plastic bags found during surveys of 8 stream tributaries of the Anacostia River.
In 2009, the Anacostia Watershed Society installed a trash trap on Nash Run and began collecting data on the types of trash it collected. The trash trap is a special device placed in the stream that allows water to pass through, but catches litter. Once a month for the past four years, volunteers have cleaned out the trap and counted the number of bottles, styrofoam, bags, and other debris.
The amount of trash collected depends on how much rain has fallen during the month -- heavy rainfall carries more trash to the stream and thus the trap. So in order to have a more objective measure of the change in plastic bag use, we use the number of bags found compared to the total amount of trash collected -- expressed as bags per kilogram of trash.
As you can see, similar to the DDOE chart above, this chart also shows an increasing trend in plastic bag litter from March 2009 to June 2010. However, the overall trend is a decrease in plastic bags polluting the stream over the 3-year period after the bag fee was implemented, from January 2010 to November 2012. Why didn’t decline didn’t start immediately after the bag went into effect? We can see several reasons why this might be the case: First, about one third of the Nash Run watershed is actually in Prince George’s County, MD, where there is no bag fee. So, the number of bags entering the stream from Maryland was presumably still increasing according to that 2007-2009 trend. Secondly, it takes time for litter to make its way from neighborhood streets to local streams. Third, compliance and understanding of the bag fee was not 100% right away. So, it’s not too surprising that the number of bags in the stream didn’t drop immediately.
What is clear is that the number of bags is declining, and that this decreasing trend matches the experience of other stream cleanup groups in the DC region. The Alice Ferguson Foundation, which runs cleanup events throughout the Potomac watershed, reported a 50% decline in plastic bags in Montgomery County in the first year after the the Montgomery bag fee went live. The faster decrease may be due to a faster adoption rate in Montgomery County and streams that are fully within the county, unlike Nash Run.
The Anacostia Watershed Society will continue to tally monthly data from the trash trap on Nash Run. Based on these initial results, we expect to see the decline in plastic bags continue, especially if Prince George’s County and/or the state of Maryland implement their own 5-cent bag fees.
Friday, March 1, 2013
On Tuesday afternoon, the Senate’s Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs committee held its hearing on the statewide bag fee. This was the first public hearing on the bag bill in 2013, and if it is any indication, the bill might just have a fighting chance in the legislature this year. As Senator Jamie Raskin (D-Montgomery), the bill’s sponsor, explained: the fee is neither experimental nor controversial, and presents an easy opportunity for Maryland to be a national leader on this issue. We couldn’t agree more.
After a very long day of hearing other bills, the supporters for the bag fee kept our testimony brief and to the point. Julie Lawson, of the Trash Free Maryland Alliance, introduced the bill and outlined why the 5-cent fee is the best solution to dealing with the known problem of plastic bag litter. Kate Judson, representing the District Department of the Environment, spoke about the success of DC’s bag fee and offered the District’s official support. Jen Brock-Cancellieri came from the Maryland League of Conservation Voters to highlight the correlation of litter with crime, and how the bag fee will help counties comply with looming federal water cleanup mandates. Additionally, the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce submitted written testimony in favor of the bill.
Many opponents of bag fees argue that recycling is the solution to the bag problem. This was clearly refuted by testimony from the Prince George’s County Department of Environmental Resources (DER). Desmond Gladden, who directs the County’s recycling facility, said that it costs $110,000 annually to clean bags out of the facility’s machinery, requiring 4 hours of daily staff time and lost productivity. The low price he gets for the bags does not offset the costs of dealing with the problems they cause. Adam Ortiz, the Department’s Acting Director, noted that the County also spends millions annually on litter cleanup, and that utilities such as WSSC and DC Water also spend resources cleaning plastic bags from their systems. In other words, plastic bags aren’t free -- we are all paying to clean them up!
There were some questions and confusion on what happens to the revenue generated from the fee. Lawson clarified that the first purpose of the revenue is to buy reusable bags -- as many as needed -- to be distributed to low-income and elderly residents through existing outlets with the Department of Health and Human Resources. Leftover funds will be distributed back to the counties for environmental cleanup projects through the Chesapeake Bay Trust. Neither CBT nor the Comptroller take a cut of the revenue -- 100% will be spent on reusable bags and environmental projects.
The last part of the hearing was testimony from the bill’s opposition, including representatives from the paper bag industry, the plastic bag industry, and a citizens group. Most of their arguments were built around misunderstandings of the bill or inaccurate facts about plastic bags, and based upon the response, it seems that most of the committee saw through them. Senator Paul Pinksy (D-Prince George's), one of the bill’s cosponsors and a committee member, singlehandedly refuted many of the statements made by the opposition.
Tuesday’s hearing was a promising 2013 debut for the bag fee for Maryland. The next hurdle will be the committee hearing on the House side, on Friday, March 8. After that, each committee will vote on the bill, and hopefully send it to the full House and Senate floors!
-By Bradley Kennedy
Thursday, February 14, 2013
Most people don’t spend a solid hour of their day discussing the finer points of shopping carts and their theft. But, that is what occurred, and what I observed, a couple of weeks ago in a Maryland House Judiciary Committee hearing. The bill at hand was HB156, sponsored by Delegate Reznik and titled “Criminal Law- Theft of Wheeled Cart- Penalty”.
A brief background on the bill: This bill seeks to increase the fine for theft of wheeled carts from $25 up to $100. The original fine was implemented in 1957 and has not been changed since. When adjusted for inflation, that $25 in 1957 becomes $204 in 2012 dollars. So, $100 seems like a logical, if underestimated, update.
Trash Free Maryland’s Julie Lawson (who I shadowed for the day) testified at the hearing. She was in support of the bill with the understanding that the increased penalty would deter theft and, consequently, the dumping of the carts. According to her testimony, evidence of dumped shopping carts have been found in streams, creeks, and rivers all over Maryland and her written testimony noted that, “volunteers with Clean Bread and Cheese Creek have removed more than 160 carts since 2009”. She went on to express how the dumped carts can increase flooding and erosion, be harmful to animals that get caught in them, and especially harmful to people as they try and remove them. On top of all of this, the dumped carts scream blight to passersby, an unwanted presence in any neighborhood. Her hope was that the increased penalty will improve enforcement since it might be worth a municipality’s time with the higher penalty fee.
The other two people testifying at the hearing were Bruce Bereano, a lobbyist representing a national grocery store chain, and Jeff Zellmer, from the Maryland Retailers Association. Their points touched more on the economic side of things, trying to show the financial burden it places on grocery stores to replace the carts, which can cost several hundred dollars a piece.
Throughout the hearing, several delegates spoke up here and there asking questions, probing, and generally doing their job. But one delegate in particular, Luiz Simmons from Montgomery County, started asking very pointed questions that changed the hearing from, what, I thought, seemed like a simple procedure for a something that would certainly have support and pass, to a rigorous reevaluation of the bill and a bit of a wake-up call for those involved.
The following are some of the excellent points made and questions asked with a few of my own reflections that I had along the way:
- Who is charged the fine? Does the person have to actually be seen stealing the cart or is it the person seen wheeling it around after the actual theft?
- Couldn’t people always just say they found the cart somewhere and were using it if they weren’t seen stealing it? If that person were truthful and were actually using the cart in a beneficial manner is that better than dumping the cart?
- Many people who use shopping carts off store premises may not be able to pay the $100 fine. What happens then? Do these people have to do some sort of community service instead (perhaps removing dumped carts from streams)? If this were the case, how would this ease the financial burden to the grocery stores?
Delegate Simmons then made the best point of all, that an existing general theft statute (7-104) already exists that has a stricter punishment than what HB156 is trying to pass. In this statute, a person can be fined up to $500 for items in a certain price bracket, in which a shopping cart falls. So, he was saying, why don’t we just do away with the special provision for wheeled carts and, instead, lump it into the general statute? Touché.
Looking around at the room at this juncture, there was a palpable air of sheepishness. Personally, I was very impressed that Delegate Simmons spoke up about the redundancy. As much as I went into the day a little jaded by the thought of politics (although I had no real reason for this, just a general feeling of the ineffectiveness that plagues many governments), I came out pleasantly surprised to know that, even if the number of things accomplished isn’t as high as my ideal, there exist intelligent politicians who are willing to speak up and show the ridiculousness of a situation.
Now, if only this could be done in a pleasant, productive manner across all spectrums of government...
-By Ann DeSanctis, Anacostia Watershed Society
Update (2/14/13): HB156 passed the Judiciary committee unanimously, with the amendment to repeal the shopping cart provision and make shopping cart theft subject to the General Theft Statute. As Ann described above, this move makes the penalty for stealing a cart $500. A similar amendment is expected in the Senate Judicial Proceedings committee. -Julie
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
The process of our governments, whether it be at the federal or local level, is a mystery to many. I included myself in that group until very recently when I had the opportunity to spend the day in Annapolis shadowing Julie Lawson, of the Public Affairs team at the Anacostia Watershed Society and also the lead organizer for Trash Free Maryland.
We lucked out with a gorgeous, sunny day in Annapolis which was the perfect backdrop to my first glimpse of the grand, Georgian architecture placed purposefully around the two circles that defined the area. Historic buildings were abound and it all felt appropriately stately and important.
We started out in the House of Delegates visiting delegates with the purpose of building support for the statewide bag fee and, hopefully, gaining a few cosponsors along the way. We later went over to the Senate to do the same. Each office we entered had many of the same features and I was completely turned around by the time we reached our fifth, but one thing was consistent throughout our meetings -- the cordial staff. They all took a second away from their busy mornings to inform us of their bosses’ whereabouts. If they could help us efficiently they did. If not, they let us know when to return. I’m not sure if it was just early enough in the morning that folks were still pleasant or if they maintain that demeanor all day, but kudos to all.
As I was whisked along the finely appointed halls there were a few things that surprised me:
- The age range of the delegates/senators. Many were much younger than I expected (early 30s?) and others had been around much longer than I thought would be possible.
- How much running around occurred. In this day and age ruled by electronic communication there is something to be said for waiting an extra 15 minutes to get a face-to-face. It seemed to be the norm, though, and I appreciate that that is still the best means to getting things accomplished.
- The ambiguity of speech by all parties. I think I learned the true meaning of political correctness. It involves being able to talk around a subject so completely that one either forgets what was originally being said or are so assuaged by whatever was stated that it all begins to become abstract and lose meaning. It was a tough job listening intently and trying to get to the root of a delegate’s refusal to cosponsor when it sounded like he/she was just politely saying maybe.
Would I recommend a day in Annapolis? Absolutely. I felt like I was part of the action in getting things done and was learning at every turn. I can’t imagine doing it everyday but, as a break from the routine or to give your support to a bill whose cause you support, it’s a fantastic way to see the inner workings of the political system. And it can’t be beat in terms of feeling like a citizen. Onward, to Annapolis!
-By Ann DeSanctis, Anacostia Watershed Society