Montgomery County Councilmembers on Thursday questioned if the county’s one-year-old 5-cent fee for plastic and paper bags should cover non-grocery store retailers such as Home Depot, Target or fast food restaurants.
Councilman Roger Berliner (D-Bethesda-Potomac) and Crag Rice (D-Upcounty) said they have heard numerous complaints from people unhappy about or unwilling to use re-useable bags in department stores such as Nordstrom. Rice said retailers and grocers often are suspicious of customers who use re-useable bags as shoplifters.
Rice said he once was suspected of shoplifting with a re-useable bag at a local grocery store and the tax leads to racial profiling.
Bob Hoyt, director of Montgomery’s Department of Environmental Protection, vigorously defended the tax as is, telling councilmembers he has received much positive feedback and the program is one of the most successful he has ever seen.
“There’s no difference in a plastic bag in a stream that came from a grocery store versus one from a Home Depot,” Hoyt said. “And now to say a year later, a year later, that nobody will ever walk into a Home Depot with their own carry-out bags, I don’t understand that.”
The fee was instituted on Jan. 1, 2012 to encourage people toward re-useable bags and away from plastic and paper bag use. Hoyt said stream clean-up groups have told him they’ve seen a 25 percent decrease in the number of bags they found in streams over the past year and Safeway managers have said they’ve seen a 50 to 60 percent reduction in plastic bag usage at their stores.
But after the county collected more than double the amount of revenue they expected from the bag tax in 2012, Berliner and others are questioning how effective the tax has been at changing people’s shopping behaviors. He also asked why the county wouldn’t outright ban plastic bags, as has been done in some jurisdictions, if it thought plastic bags were such a problem.
“I feel like we want to have a tax where we actually can induce changes. And I totally get it in grocery stores and I think our public totally gets it in grocery stores. It might aggravate them, but they can get used to using a re-useable bag when they go shopping for groceries,” Berliner said. “To go into a Home Depot with a re-useable bag is not something that is on most people’s consciousness and I don’t think ever will be. And my concern is that it breeds resentment because it really is not connected to what somebody would change their behavior for.”
There is no legislation to change the bag tax on the table and no decisions were made in Thursday’s lively discussion of the issue at the Transportation & Environment Committee meeting.
“The story that I hear is extremely troubling,” said Rice, who said fear of shoplifters who use re-useable bags has led to increased preventative costs at some local retailers. “For this to happen to me, it’s definitely happening to other people. And it’s an impact and a cost that I don’t think that we saw before but I can tell you it’s real. And especially as a black man, unfortunately in times like this some things haven’t changed. And so all we’re doing is further giving the ability for things like this to happen.”
Hoyt said the county included retailers in the tax based on a recommendation from Washington, D.C., which in 2010 instituted a bag tax for food service licensees only. D.C. officials said the tax caused confusion for retailers such as CVS and Target, which regularly sell food and small items in plastic bags.
“We drew the line we did based on the District of Columbia’s drawing of the line, which didn’t work,” Hoyt said.
“Mr. Hoyt,” Rice responded, “with all due respect, we drew the line. We’re the ones that decided what the bill was and now what we’re telling you, let me finish, is that we now need to re-draw the line.”