Capital News Service

WASHINGTON- The number of plastic bags customers take from stores in Montgomery County has declined since the Carryout Bag Law went into effect a year ago, and that’s meant less pollution in local waterways, officials said.

“Last year we saw a 50 percent reduction in the number of bags that our volunteers collected from cleanup sites in Montgomery County,” said Laura Chamberlin, program manager of the Trash Free Potomac Watershed Initiative for the Alice Ferguson Foundation.

The foundation partners with the Montgomery County Department of Parks, along with other agencies, for the annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup held in April. The parks department also participates in the annual Anacostia River Watershed Cleanup during the same month.

Volunteers at 78 sites in the county were asked to count or estimate the amount of trash retrieved, said Henry Coppola, site coordinator at the parks department. These records show a decline in the number of plastic bags collected in the Potomac and Anacostia rivers and their tributaries.

“We do not have a specific target or number to allow the county to determine the law’s effectiveness,” said Meo Curtis at the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection. “The county is looking to reduce the number of bags in area watersheds with the ultimate goal being elimination.”

Plastic bags are scattered across the shrubs and in water on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013, at Lake Whetstone Park in Montgomery Village. The stream flows into Seneca Creek, and eventually into the Potomac River. (Capital News Service photo by Angela Harvey)

The law, effective on Jan. 1, 2012, requires all retail establishments to charge 5 cents for a paper or plastic bag. Once a store’s profits reach $100 it must begin reporting its bag sales to the county. Retailers then make 1 cent from each bag and 4 cents goes to the county’s Water Quality Protection Charge Fund.

The fund is designed to defray some of the cost of litter cleanup that is paid for by property taxes. The total county profit from the tax was just over $2 million by November, and during that time bag use went down 36 percent, according to county data.

“In Montgomery County, Safeway saw a 70 percent drop in plastic bag use at the checkouts from 2011 to the end of 2012,” said Craig Muckle, manager of public affairs for Safeway. “There could be other factors, but I am pretty sure the bag fee has a lot to do with it. We saw similar results from the bag fee in the District,” he said.

In the District, the Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Act went into effect in 2010. A bill to tax plastic bags in Prince George’s County is still under debate in the General Assembly.

County residents and shoppers have mixed opinions about the need for the tax, and the possibility of other counties initiating similar legislation. Karen White said it is inconvenient to bring reusable bags every time she shops, especially at grocery stores, and sees the law as a source of financial hardship. She agrees there are some environmental benefits, but doubts pollution is the driving force behind the law.

“I think the tax is awful. Food already costs so much, and so many people are struggling. I think it’s just the county being greedy,” White said.

Lisa Topchik said she keeps reusable bags in her van as a convenient way to curb the need for plastic. She said it would benefit the entire state if more counties enacted similar legislation.

“It gives people the incentive to use less plastic. Most people will think twice when they have to pay for it, and I think more people are giving reusable bags a try,” Topchik said.

The county has yet to do a comprehensive report on the effectiveness of the law. Curtis said the process requires more time because reporting on trash removal from watersheds is voluntary; and there is a large of number of public and private storm water management providers in the county.

One large provider in Maryland is the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. It cleans up 35 watersheds in the county on an as needed basis.

“We have done a number of watershed cleanups in Montgomery County,” said Kimberly Knox, WSSC community outreach manager, “and there has been a significant reduction in the number of plastic bags collected since the tax.”


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About the Author

Angela Harvey is a senior undergraduate student in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park. She covers the environment for the Washington, D.C., bureau of Capital News Service. Harvey has reported for student publications, including The Diamondback, Black Explosion, Mitzpeh and The Public Asian.