In the news

The Diamondback
Jim Bach

Although it may mean paying slightly more for groceries, student activists have rallied behind legislation that would place a 5-cent surcharge on plastic bags.

As the fate of a plastic bag tax hinges on the votes of 23 county delegation lawmakers, students have begun mobilizing in hopes of persuading undecided delegates to vote in favor of the bill. To ensure students are prepared to lobby legislators, MaryPIRG hosted Matt Dernoga, policy analyst for District 1 Councilwoman Mary Lehman, at its meeting last night, who stressed the potential influence students can have toward on-the-fence lawmakers.

"Unfortunately, the Prince George's County delegation is not as progressive on this issue as we would like them to be," Dernoga, a former Diamondback columnist, said. "If you're a student it really does matter."

The bill needs to garner support from at least 12 of the 23 county delegation members before it can be signed into law. The vote will "come down to the wire," Dernoga said, and he expects a decision to be made by the end of this month.

The proposed legislation was born out of an effort to clean waterways and lessen the financial burden of county trash pickup, which Dernoga said runs the county a hefty price tag of $1.2 million a year.

Dernoga pointed to the success of Washington — the first city to implement the tax — which has seen a significant reduction in plastic bag use. Additionally, the city raised $3.5 million from the additional tax, of which $1.5 million has been reinvested in environmental initiatives. Montgomery County followed suit by implementing similar bag fee legislation last month.

Since current state law does not give the county proper taxing authority to levy the bag fee, it is up to county delegates to vote the legislation into law. Without this bill, Dernoga said, it will be difficult for the county to keep up with Washington and Montgomery County in its plastic bag reduction efforts.

"If we don't have the ability to do it, we're in a tough spot," Dernoga said.

Student support for the effort could help push lawmakers in favor of the measure in what is expected to be a close vote, said James Jalandoni, the plastic bags campaign coordinator for MaryPIRG.

"The student support, I think, can really tip the scales," he said.

Students should consider the environmental impact of plastic bag use, MaryPIRG President Sam Zwerling said, noting the group decided to support this legislation because it is an issue that greatly affects students.

"They need to make a decision every time they buy something," she said. "I think it's important for students to make that decision each time."

But some said the legislation would harm the economy and displace hundreds of workers. Instead, said Donna Dempsey, a spokeswoman for the American Progressive Bag Alliance — a nonprofit organization that represents plastic bag manufacturers — students should tailor their efforts toward increasing recycling measures.

"I certainly applaud students for wanting to do the right thing," she said. "We are for implementing a reduce, reuse and recycling strategy."

Dempsey added that bag fee legislation could increase grocery costs for low-income earners.

"I think that the consumers will take a financial hit," she said. "This is a tax that will add to their grocery bill."

But Dernoga said he doesn't think the tax will negatively impact jobs in Prince George's County, and said some sacrifices need to be made to move forward with green practices.

"The only jobs plastic bags are generating in our county are government jobs picking them up," he said. "There's always going to be winners and losers when it comes to these kind of changes."