A bill that would exempt non-food stores from Montgomery County's bag tax still faces opposition from County Executive Isiah Leggett and environmentalists, some who at a Tuesday public hearing argued it would invite confusion and hurt stream clean-up efforts.
"Changes will negatively impact the success of this bag law," said Laura Chamberlain, a program manager with a group that does Potomac watershed clean-ups.
Chamberlain said clean-up volunteers over the last 18 months at Montgomery sites have reported a 50 percent decrease in plastic bags near or in streams. She didn't agree with Councilmember Roger Berliner (D-Bethesda-Chevy Chase) who earlier in the hearing said he doesn't think there is evidence that the county's streams are threatened by bags from non-food retailers and department stores. The bill would also exempt plastic carry-out food bags from the tax.
"I have been out there. I have seen bags from those kinds of stores," Chamberlain said. "I have been into those stores and I've seen them selling reuseable bags."
Berliner, a co-sponsor of the bill, said while he still supports the goal of the original bag tax, enacted on Jan. 1, 2012, he thinks requiring people to carry reuseable bags into a hardware store or a Nordstroms to avoid the five-cent fee only breeds resentment.
"One small retailer in downtown Bethesda said, 'We have a number of customers who get angry with us because of a law Montgomery County has imposed on us,'" testified Ginanne Italiano, President of the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce. "'They leave very frustrated, not because of the five cents, but because of a law that makes us charge five cents for a paper bag when it's the plastic bags that are causing the pollution.'"
Bob Hoyt, director of Montgomery’s Department of Environmental Protection, has defended the existing law before and delivered Leggett's official opposition on Tuesday. His testimony is above.
Berliner said he'd like Montgomery's bag tax to be more reflective of other jurisdictions with similar measures. He cited a Boulder, Colo., bag tax that only covers food stores.
"Boulder's law has not yet gone into affect, has been a labeled a first step, charges 10 cents a bag and covers a smaller area," Hoyt said.
Kate Judson, from D.C.'s District Department of the Environment, encouraged councilmembers to keep the current law because it's simple and easy to understand for both residents and businesses.
Montgomery environmental officials went to D.C. when creating the county's bag tax. D.C. officials told them to make the tax apply to all stores to avoid the confusion they encountered at CVS stores and similar places after the tax was enacted on Jan. 1, 2010 in the District.
"Surveys show plastic bag use is down and it has become accepted," Judson said. "[The] current law is simple and easy to understand from a resident's perspective. Changing it could result in inconsistent compliance and an uneven playing field."
Video via Montgomery County Council