By DREW GROSSMAN
COLLEGE PARK, Md. (February 1, 2012)—As Prince George's County lawmakers move to impose a tax on plastic bags, environmental organizations said a similar fee in Washington, D.C., has sharply reduced the amount of trash in the Anacostia River.
Because almost half of the Anacostia River's watershed lies in Prince George's County, the new bag fee under consideration will help further reduce the number of disposable plastic bags that pollute the river, said Mike Bolinder, the Anacostia Waterkeeper.
"The total volume of trash in the river has gone down dramatically," said Bolinder, a member of Waterkeeper Alliance, a group that works to protect bodies of water from pollution.
The County Affairs Committee of the Prince George's County delegation is considering imposing a fee of 5 cents on disposable bags used at grocery and convenience stores in the county.
The district's bag fee went into effect in January 2010, partly in response to a 2008 study that found that 22 percent of the trash in the Anacostia was disposable plastic bags. The study also found that 47 percent of trash in the river's tributaries was plastic bags.
Groundwork Anacostia, a nonprofit group, maintains three traps that capture floating garbage along the river. In December 2011, plastic bags accounted for 1 percent of trash captured at those locations.
Before the bag tax in the district, the three trash traps were predominantly filled with disposable plastic bags, Bolinder said.
"The volume of bags in relation to other trash has dropped almost 100 percent, I rarely see a bag in the traps anymore," he said.
In a February 2011 study on litter in the District, the Alice Ferguson Foundation, a Maryland nonprofit environmental organization, found that 75 percent of residents surveyed said they have reduced their use of plastic bags since the fee was introduced.
In fiscal year 2011, the bag tax raised $1.8 million, according to the district Department of the Environment. It awarded nearly $1 million in grants to community organizations and $300,000 to private companies to clean up waterways in the district.
The Alice Ferguson Foundation found that only 12 percent of businesses reported that the bag fee had affected their business negatively, while 20 percent said that the bag fee has had a positive effect. A majority of businesses, 58 percent, said the bag fee has not affected their business at all.
A bag tax went into effect in Montgomery County at the beginning of this year, making it the first Maryland county to impose such a tax.
Montgomery County taxpayers were spending $3 million a year to clean up plastic bags, said Ansu John, a public education and outreach officer for the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection.
"It's much cheaper to cut a pollutant at the source then to pay for the clean-up," she said.
An effort to impose a bag tax in Prince George's County failed during last year's General Assembly. It passed the Senate but did not receive enough support from Prince George's delegates to be brought up for a vote in the House.
Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George's, who sponsored the failed legislation last year, said he was hopeful it would pass this year.
"If you drive through our county there are plastic bags stuck in trees all over the place," Pinsky said. "I think it's good economically and the right thing to do."
Delegate Barbara Frush, D-Prince George's, who is sponsoring the bag fee in the House, said she was disturbed when she and her grandchildren pulled over to the side of the road recently and easily found 40 plastic bags.
"It's costly, it's outrageous," Frush said.
Despite the lack of a bag tax in Prince George's, some grocery stores in the county have already taken steps to reduce plastic bag waste.
MOM's Organic Market in College Park does not offer plastic bags for customers to carry their groceries. The organic food mart has paper bags, but encourages costumers to use reusable grocery bags.
"There are so many bags that get used and they get blown out of the trash, they get blown out of landfills, people litter them and they end up in our waterways," said Scott Nash, the owner of MOM's. "The plastic in our oceans is really out of control and it's becoming a big problem, so we steer away from plastic for that reason mainly."
MOM's also ran a campaign to educate consumers on the importance of reusing grocery bags and distributed some free reusable bags to encourage the practice.
"I hate to say it but people usually don't change until they are forced to change or until it hits their pocketbook and they feel the need to change," Nash said. "I feel like most people go through life somewhat oblivious about stuff like this."
Not everyone is enthusiastic about the possibility of a bag fee in Prince George's.
"It should be a choice," said Regina Brannon, 48, of Greenbelt. "You are supposed to be able to buy a product and get a bag. Whether you want to or not, you will have to carry a bag."