By Brent Bolin

It is estimated that each year Americans consume a lot of plastic bags - about 100 billion, weighing more than 8 billion pounds. These are the bags we get when we buy a can of soda, a candy bar, or our groceries - bags that we use one time and then most often throw away.

The problem is that too few bags get reused or recycled and instead end up as roadside litter, get caught in trees, mar our cities and towns, and become a harmful pollutant that damages our rivers, harbors and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay.

In an effort to improve the health of our waters and reduce litter throughout the state, the Maryland Legislature is considering HB 1034/SB 602 the “Clean the Streams and Beautify the Bay Act of 2011.” The purpose of this bill is quite simple: to remove a significant pollutant – trash – from the waste stream by discouraging the use of disposable carryout bags and encouraging the use of reusable bags.

Disposable bags, particularly plastic bags, are one of the most common forms of litter than end up in streams, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. For example, it has been shown that 47% of the trash in the Maryland tributaries of the Anacostia River consists of plastic bags.

The way the program would work is this: most retailers would be required to charge 5 cents for each disposable bag sold to a consumer. Stores would retain 1 cent (or 2 cents, if they have a bag credit program) to cover costs, with the remainder going to the state to support a reusable bag distribution program, public education efforts, and a dedicated grant program to fund stream clean-ups, community greening projects, environmental education, and a state-wide youth conservation corps.

Why 5 cents? Mainly because of the average cost of bags - retailers spend 2-3 cents per plastic bag and 5-8 cents per paper bag. So 5 cents is a fair reflection of the average cost of disposable bags. Keep in mind that the cost of these "free" bags is passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices.

The bag bill is pro-consumer because it splits this cost out and gives consumers a way to avoid it if they so choose to. We've calculated that the average Marylander spends $15 - $37.50 on these hidden bag costs each year. Contrast that with a reusable bag that costs on average $1-3 and lasts about two years and the pro-consumer angle becomes clear.

So how do we know this approach will work? This evidence comes from the bag fee program recently implemented in Washington, DC. In the first year of the program, the number of plastic bags used in DC dropped from 270 million in 2009 to 55 million in 2010 – an 80 percent reduction!

On the Anacostia River, 66 percent fewer bags were collected in clean-up efforts in 2010 versus 2009. Moreover, an overwhelming 78 percent of businesses recently interviewed reported that the bag fee had had either a positive effect or no effect at all on business.

The reason is simple: because these bags are not free to you or the store owners, businesses save a lot of money because they are buying fewer "free" bags to give out. The average small business will save $500 to $3,000 per year; larger stores, even more. So the bag bill is pro-business too.

There is strong public support for this measure. In a statewide survey conducted by OpinionWorks in December 2010, 64% of the state’s residents reported that they would support a 5-cent fee on disposable bags if revenue generated by the fee were used to fund local community clean-up projects.

Support for the bill is gaining is in the General Assembly. The reason is clear: It’s rare to find policies that help both the environment and business at the same time. The era of the plastic and paper bag, used once then thrown away, is over. And while recycling is certainly part of the solution, currently the industry only has the capacity to recycle 10 percent of plastic bags in use.

Now, we finally now have a better solution, and should be prepared to embrace it. Marylanders care deeply about the health of the environment and are ready to embrace win-win policies like the bag bill.

Brent Bolin is Director of Advocacy for the Anacostia Watershed Society and part of the Trash Free Alliance.