Beat Back the Bag Monster

This is how you’d look if all you had to wear were the plastic bags you toted home all year long.
    You’d look like a plastic imitation of New Orleans’ legendary Mardi Gras Indian tribes. But you’d be warm.
    That’s the overheated conclusion of Bag Monster Rick Rogner of Silver Spring. Rogner donned the borrowed costume to help Del. Al Carr, of Kensington, convince Maryland to learn to follow the District of Columbia’s “path to a better place.” We’d get on that path, Carr contends, by passing Maryland’s Clean the Streams and Beautify the Bay Act.
    When District of Columbia government teaches lessons, it’s traditionally been in what not to do. Until now, when the District’s year-old Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Act is showing amazing results: D.C. shoppers carried away 55 million bags in 2010, down from 270 million in 2009.
    What made the difference was the five-cent fee shoppers are refusing to pay for a single-use plastic or paper bag at bakeries, delicatessens, grocery stores, drugstores, convenience stores, department stores and other businesses that sell food items.
    Helping shoppers say no: a reeducation campaign carried out in every one of the capital city’s wards, from the richest to the poorest, where lots of reusable bags were handed out free.
    Plus, freedom of choice helped make the difference, too. If you wanted a throwaway bag, it was yours — for five cents.
    “Death and taxes you can’t avoid,” Charles Allen, chief of staff for D.C.’s bag law sponsor Councilman Tommy Wells, told Marylanders seeking their own bag bill. “But under D.C.’s bag bill, you don’t have to pay a fee unless you want to.”
    The five-cent fee is divided between the merchant, who gets one cent, and the Anacostia River, which gets four cents. In a year, the fee has brought more than $2 million to cleaning and protecting D.C.’s river. The Anacostia can use all the help it can get.
    So can the entire Chesapeake watershed.
    Bettering the Bay is one goal of Maryland Delegate Carr’s Clean the Streams and Beautify the Bay Act of 2011, inspired by the D.C. “win-win solution” and introduced last week with 34 co-sponsors.
    As in D.C., in Maryland we’d still be able to have our throwaway bag — for five cents.
    Most of Maryland’s fee would be awarded by the Chesapeake Bay Trust in grants for community watershed restoration and education.
    Following another D.C. lesson, merchants would get a share of the fee, with the last pennies supporting public education and providing free reusable bags to low-income and elderly Marylanders.
    On the other hand, if you bring your own bags to the store, you both save money and beat back the bag monster.
    Five hundred bags a year add up to an average lifetime use of 22,176 plastic bags. Of that mass, only one to three percent gets recycled, according to Chestertown Mayor Margo Bailey, whose Eastern Shore town is about to ban many uses of plastic bags.
    That mass makes a lot of mess. Walking in a 735-mile straight line from Maryland’s Atlantic coast to Ripley, Ohio, last summer in his Pick Up America campaign, the Bag Monster’s 25-year-old son Davey Rogner picked up 73,224 pounds of trash. About 10 percent was plastic bags.
    Thus Maryland’s Clean the Streams and Beautify the Bay Act has a dual purpose:
    “Plastic is choking our waterways and defacing our parks and public spaces,” said Sen. Jamie Raskin of Takoma Park, the bill’s lead sponsor of nine in the Maryland Senate. “It’s time to solve the problem of plastic pollution. This legislation will force us to retrain ourselves to bring our reusable bags to the store. And, if we forget, human nature dictates that the nickel we pay for the bag will make us remember.”
    Track the progress of HB 1034 and Senate bill 602 at