Montgomery County’s bag tax might have reduced waste in Rock Creek and generated about $2.5 million for stormwater projects, but some County Council members say it needs to be scaled back.
“We drew the line. What we’re telling you is we now need to redraw the line,” Councilman Craig Rice said.
“My own sense is that we’ve overreached a bit, but I don’t know how easy it is going to be to draw a line,” Councilman Roger Berliner said.
Rice and Berliner were among the four council members who questioned Robert Hoyt, director of the county Department of Environmental Protection, on Thursday during the council’s Transportation Infrastructure Energy and Environment committee discussion about the tax’s effectiveness and application, and if it was changing behavior as intended.
Anecdotes on the tax varied.
Rice told of grocery store security stopping him to ask if he paid for his items bagged in a reusable bag and of retailers having to put security tags on all their merchandise to avoid theft because patrons are more likely to place items in their own bags while they shop.
Berliner, who chairs the committee, said bringing reusable bags to the mall or Home Depot is not something most people will get used to doing.
Hoyt said there is no difference between a plastic bag in a stream that came from a grocery store and one that came from a Home Depot and that residents actually do go to the mall with their reusable bags in tow.
“I go in swinging my bag so people look at me,” Hoyt said.
“But you are weird,” Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Bethesda told Hoyt.
“Understood,” Hoyt replied.
Montgomery began levying a 5-cent tax on most carry-out bags January 2012 to help change residents’ attitudes from blasé to environmentally conscious and to reduce the number of bags in waterways.
Depending on who you ask, behavior is changing.
Hoyt called the tax “one of the most successful programs” the county has had. He said all of the feedback has been positive.
Montgomery County expects to collect $2.5 million from taxes on about 60 million bags in fiscal year 2013. The money goes into the county’s Water Quality Protection Fund, to pay for stormwater projects.
Beth Mullin of the Rock Creek Conservancy said in a January email that since enactment of bag legislation, the number of bags her organization finds in and along Rock Creek has dropped dramatically.
“Between April 2011 and April 2012, the number of plastic bags collected in Montgomery County dropped from 5,274 to 3,957, a decline of 25% just a few months after the bag law went into effect,” she wrote. “Our cleanup leaders report that in many areas their sites are significantly cleaner than in past years, and our numbers back that up.”
But Rice (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown said it is also burdening some county retailers.
He told of his discussions with a manager at a Popeyes restaurant whose location switched from plastic take-out bags, which are taxed by the county, to paper bags, which are not. But the high cost of paper bags forced the restaurant to eliminate all bags, Rice said. Its customers now juggle boxes of chicken and fries as they head out the door.
Councilwoman Nancy Floreen (D-At large) of Garrett Park questioned taxing plastic bags at restaurants, which, so often, are necessary to contain drippy takeout orders.
Customers don’t have the luxury of a reusable bag or forgoing a bag when picking up takeout that spills or that’s leaky, she said.
Robert Hagedoorn, the county treasury chief, said about half of the bags taxed by the county come from grocery stores — the one place council members thought a bag tax was appropriate.
But Berliner questioned if the broad tax was fostering animosity at other retailers.
“My concern is that it breeds resentment,” Berliner said.
Berliner supported creating the tax in 2011 and said he believes it is changing behaviors at the grocery store, but admitted that even he gets angry when he is taxed for a bag at the mall.
“I have questions as to whether or not somebody walking into a Macy’s should be expected to bring in a reusable bag,” he said. “It just doesn’t strike me as intuitively obvious that that’s where we get either a big change in behavior or our bang for our buck. And then it begins to feel like a nuisance tax as opposed to a change in people’s behavior and I don’t feel like we want to put ourselves in that position.”
Hoyt said a year into the tax is too early to talk about scaling it back, a sentiment shared by Councilman Hans Riemer (D-At large) of Takoma Park.
After a couple of more years of the tax, people will be comfortable bringing bags to stores, knowing that four of the five cents they paid will help the environment, Riemer said.
Hoyt likened pushback on the tax to what the county heard decades ago when it first implemented a recycling program. Now, recycling is accepted, he said.
Despite concerns raised by council members that the tax needs to be tweaked, Berliner said he has not decided if he will propose amendments to the bag tax law.
“I want to take this in,” he said. “I’m thinking.”
The committee asked for more data from the county and a survey to show details on where the tax is collected.