The Baltimore County Council recently passed the Bring Your Own Bag Act, which will ban the distribution of plastic bags at some stores beginning this November. Unfortunately, the bill was amended and weakened, perpetuating a serious flaw that is too common in well-intended plastic reduction policies. Blue Water Baltimore and Maryland Hunger Solutions strongly supported the original bill, but are disappointed that the final version will present another barrier to accessing food.
During a flurry of amendments, County Council members removed a key equity provision, all but guaranteeing that the bill will have disparate impacts on low-income residents. The county’s bill requires retailers to charge 5 cents, down from 10 cents in a previous version of the bill, for every paper and reusable bag offered at checkout to encourage customers to bring their own reusable bags. While laudable, this requirement fails to understand the reality of the tens of thousands of county residents who use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; the Women, Infants, and Children program; and other nutrition assistance programs to purchase groceries.
Strict rules govern federal nutrition benefits. Recipients are not allowed to use their benefits to pay for nonfood items, including bag fees. So, if you go to the grocery store and check out using SNAP and happen to forget your reusable bags — as we all do on occasion — then you have no choice but to carry your items in your arms. This might sound like a small inconvenience to the able-bodied shopper driving to the store, but for those with limited mobility, shopping with young children or using public transit, a small inconvenience can quickly become a significant barrier. This also means SNAP recipients must pay out of pocket for other bags.
From Anchorage, Alaska, to Chicago, Illinois, many jurisdictions include a simple provision in their plastic bag bans and fee laws to address this problem: exempting purchases made using SNAP and WIC from the bag charge. Baltimore County’s original bill included this important equity component. Unfortunately, council members voted 6-1 to remove it.
Councilman Wade Kach said he was offended by the SNAP/WIC fee exemption provision because everyone should sacrifice equally for the sake of the environment. We would suggest to the councilman that lower-income communities are already sacrificing more than their share. Systemic disinvestment, combined with the disproportionate siting of harmful facilities in these communities, results in higher rates of pollution and worse health outcomes than in wealthier, whiter communities.
Kach has spoken about addressing inequities in government services. Here is an opportunity to do just that.
Banning plastic bags is a small but important step that will reduce the amount of litter in low-income neighborhoods and the amount of plastic that gets incinerated and buried in landfills in these communities. But charging residents of these communities a fee that they cannot pay with federal nutrition benefits is not the solution. Environmental, racial and economic justice are inextricably linked, and we need policies that reflect this reality.
Given the limitations of this bill, we hope the Maryland Legislature will consider a statewide bag bill during the next legislative session that exempts purchases made with SNAP, WIC and other food assistance programs from any bag charge. Then, we will begin to address the environmental concerns presented by plastic waste in a way that recognizes past mistakes and points toward a more equitable future.
Taylor Smith-Hams is advocacy and outreach senior manager for Blue Water Baltimore.
Michael J. Wilson is director of Maryland Hunger Solutions.