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Something for state legislators to try to bag up

In this space two weeks ago, we told you not to get anxious about the coronavirus, and to just wash your hands frequently.

The situation has ratcheted up significantly since then, hitting closer to home with a case being discovered in Charles County, but our original advice remains intact: Stay clean and stay calm.

The Maryland General Assembly had planned to do that as well, with enormous tubs of hand sanitizer stationed in the state house in Annapolis. Then last week it opted to prohibit the general public (and the press) from its proceedings in the interest of health and safety.

And then the other shoe dropped — and hard — Sunday afternoon. Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore city) announced the assembly session will end well before its prescribed 90 days are over for the first time since the Civil War. Sine Die, the Latin term long used for the end of the session, will now be today, Wednesday, at midnight, instead of the planned April 6.

The plan after this very short legislative week is that the Senate and House will reconvene sometime in late May to finish their work. On Monday night they passed the Kirwan Commission’s plans to retool public schools, and will try to iron out how they expect federal, state and local sources to pony up for that $32 billion, eight-year plan. The General Assembly has just one duty to perform constitutionally, and that is balancing the state budget. Whether that would happen in this truncated session was unclear as of Tuesday morning. But all will be back to normal once this whole coronavirus pandemic blows over.

But enough of the C word in this space today. Let’s talk now about a piece of legislation that should be pushed toward the desk of Gov. Larry Hogan (R) this year, even if it takes waiting until that previously mentioned special session. It’s important, and will be well worth passing into law after everybody’s fever has gone back down.

Twin-filed bills in the House and Senate would essentially eliminate plastic carryout bags for grocery stores and other businesses. The legislation would ban such bags at the “point of sale,” such as at grocery store checkouts. Bags not banned would be those used for packaging fruits and vegetables, wrapping meats and frozen foods, containing flowers, bagging bakery items, delivering newspapers, covering dry-cleaned clothes and carrying medicine from pharmacies. Stores would charge customers 10 cents apiece for “durable” (generally paper) bags. Retailers would keep that money, so there’s the incentive for them.

It’s high time for Maryland to join other states in getting out of the plastic bag business. And with the 50th anniversary of Earth Day coming up this spring, the timing would be respectful for the planet.

And to think that plastic bags were once touted as a more ecological option. In 1959, a Swedish engineer named Sten Gustaf Thulin developed them as an alternative to paper bags, whose production resulted in forests being chopped down. The new alternative proposed longer durability, which meant that they could be used over and over again — many more times than a paper bag could handle. The bags were then patented by a company called Celloplast, and by the middle of the 1960s, they were actively replacing paper and cloth bags in Europe. Those plastic bags, it should be noted, were more durable and could stand up to multiple uses more easily than today’s generally flimsy variety. By 1979, plastic bags accounted for 80% of Europe’s bag market, and nearly that much here.

But of course, instead of using and reusing the same bag over and over, people worldwide got used to getting rid of them. Last year, National Geographic reported that somewhere around 40% of plastic produced is packaging, used just once and then discarded.

National Geographic also reported that in 2018, shoppers in the United States used almost one plastic bag per resident per day, whereas shoppers in Denmark used an average of four plastic bags a year. The United Nations reported this year that plastic bags are now produced at a rate of one trillion a year. Many wind up in landfills or worse — like in the oceans. Plastics take nearly a millennium to degrade, according to one estimate.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also called “Gilligan’s Island,” is a floating layer of refuse comprised at least 80% of discarded plastic between California and Hawaii. It is more than twice the size of Texas, 30 feet deep and weighs more than 80,000 tons. It has been growing for decades and like a few other such mostly plastic garbage island, won’t just disappear by itself.

The intent of the legislation is to get shoppers to bring reusable bags to stores. The bags will quickly pay for themselves as they save a dime apiece for each bag they would have filled in each trip to the store.

Sponsors of the bill say it would cost the state $71,700, the price of the state’s labor department hiring an assistant attorney general for the first year of the program to develop regulations and communicate with counties and industry associations.

Baltimore has banned plastic “point of sale” bags, so the rest of the state should follow suit with the city, whenever the House and Senate can get back to business.