Here’s the open secret about the plastic bag ban that took effect New Year’s Day in Anne Arundel County.

It’s not a ban.

“We actually were trying to get folks to call it the ‘bring your own bag bill’ to focus on the behavioral changes,” said County Councilwoman Lisa Rodvien, author of the measure. “And you know, the focus really is on the behavior change, getting people in the habit of bringing their own bags. … Bag ban rolls off the tongue much easier. So, you know, no judgment if that’s what folks call it.”

There will still be plastic bags handed out willy-nilly across the county. Exceptions make sure of that.

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Whatever it is called, Anne Arundel joins a growing list of Maryland jurisdictions with bans — well, restrictions — on plastic bags. Baltimore and Howard counties and Baltimore City have similar laws. Annapolis won’t be covered by the new law.

Because, let’s face it: These things are a virus that multiplies and spreads with an almost intelligent design. How many are tucked under your sink or squirreled away in a closet somewhere? How did they get there?

I found 54 between my stash in the kitchen and the one my wife keeps behind my dresser. I found five from our dentist, a dozen from Giant Food, a few with that red Target bullseye, and one marked with a yellow happy face and the words “Thank you for your business!”

It’s a mystery how I got one from Buc-ee’s, the Texas-based gas and convenience store chain whose closest location to Annapolis is in Kodiak, Tennessee — a place I have never been.

Plastic bags are everywhere, floating on the wind and on the Chesapeake Bay.

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In 2021, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science published a paper showing just how bad it is.

The Chesapeake Bay is a sink for plastics, with 94 percent of the bottles and bags floating in from its 6,000-square-mile watershed ending up on the shorelines of Maryland and Virginia. What doesn’t come ashore breaks down into microplastics, consumed by aquatic life — and eventually us.

This ban — restriction — is going to help, right?

“So, I don’t have data,” Rodvien said. “I think we might have data eventually. … I’m just comparing different jurisdictions, how their bag bans changed things, how grocery stores with different practices … impacted the number of bags used.”

Anne Arundel’s new law, which bars retailers from providing plastic bags at checkout, does not apply to schools or the city of Annapolis — where Rodvien lives. Which is kind of weird, but not for the reason you’re thinking.

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Back in 2007, Alderman Sam Shropshire proposed the nation’s first bag ban. San Francisco had restrictions, but Annapolis was the first to consider an outright ban in the name of environmentalism.

Alexandra Cousteau, granddaughter of pioneering undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau, came to testify that a ban would protect marine animals from a growing threat. A lobbyist for Safeway called the bill un-American, saying it would take choices away from consumers.

The New York Times covered the debate.

The mayor at the time, Ellen Moyer, pulled a fast one. She introduced a bill with the same name minus the ban. Shropshire’s idea went down to that most ignominious of fates for good ideas — further study.

“Bans should always be a last resort, not the first resort,” Alderman Ross Arnett, who is still on the council, said after it was all over.

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After the defeat, Shropshire found himself in demand as a speaker. Cities around the country, many on the West Coast, wanted to hear about what happened in Annapolis and chart their way around powerful lobbyists. That was the year Whole Foods became the first grocery chain to drop most plastic bags, straws and boxes.

“It had a tremendous effect around the nation. It had an impact worldwide, in Ireland and Germany,” said Shropshire, who now lives in Saudi Arabia and works as a peace advocate.

“There is interest even in Saudi Arabia, although they’re made of petroleum.”

Sixteen years later, Annapolis is still trying to catch up.

“We introduced it twice but withdrew due to COVID,” Alderman Rob Savidge wrote in a message. “[Alderman Brooks Schandelmeier] and I are finishing up our own, largely based on county’s, but ironing out a few differences first.”

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He wants to keep part of the 10-cent fee for paper bags the county authorized, using it to buy reusable bags for low-income city residents. He wants to expand the ban to stitched bags and remove the schools exemption.

Anne Arundel County Public Schools sends thousands of children home with reduced and free meals every day, all of them wrapped in plastic bags. School system officials argued that every dime spent on a paper bag was 10 cents less for a hungry student.

“I don’t think the school exempting themselves from these environmental regulations is a good message for our students,” Savidge wrote.

Maybe it was all the exemptions, but the June county council vote on the “Bring Your Own Bag Plastic Reduction Act” seemed anti-climactic. Bag manufacturers opposed it, but grocery lobbyists and retailers seem to have come around to the idea since 2007. Restaurants got an exemption to the fee because most already use paper bags and don’t want to charge more.

“So the biggest thing, the biggest place where we’re going to have the reduction, is among grocery shoppers,” Rodvien said. “That’s probably the biggest place that most people get any sort of bags.”

I checked under my kitchen sink, and in my wife's stash. I counted more than 50 plastic bags, including one from Buc-ee's - a convenience store more than 400 miles away from Annapolis.
I checked under my kitchen sink, and in my wife's stash. I counted more than 50 plastic bags, including one from Buc-ee's — a convenience store more than 400 miles away from Annapolis. (Rick Hutzell)

It didn’t hurt that retailers get to charge 10 cents for a paper bag, which Rodvien said will prevent small business owners from being hurt by a sudden uptick in costs. There’s a 30-day grace period to start charging it.

“You know, part of the 10-cent fee that the retailers charge is to help them cover the cost of paper bags, but also as a disincentive for customers to say, “Hey, I don’t need to pay this silly 10-cent fee if I just remember to bring my own bags,’ ” Rodvien said.

If you haven’t already, now is the time to start collecting reusable bags, usually made of thicker, more easily recycled plastics and cloth. You can buy ones that make a personal statement or advertise the stores where you bought one more that time you forgot your stash.

I have these in both of our cars, our laundry room and even tucked into the canvas messenger bag I use to haul my laptop and notebooks, pens and pencils. I sometimes see bags I want just because they’re cool.

“I have a collection of reusable bags,” Rodvien said. “I will admit, I still am in the process. You know, I actually am a grocery delivery customer pretty frequently, so I’m I’m not plastic-free. I really try to be and I’m hoping this actually will help shift my personal behavior.”

In the meantime, there will be plenty of disposable plastic bags for other uses in Anne Arundel County.

In addition to schools, restaurants and the entire city of Annapolis, you’ll find them at bakeries and other places selling unwrapped prepared foods, seafood, flowers and ice. Your dry cleaning and a cigar will still come in plastic, as will the newspapers you might use to wrap something else.

Because when it comes to cleaning up our own mess, a plastic bag says it all.

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and we're we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom. 

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