If the rise in canvas totes around campus is any indication, the Baltimore City Comprehensive Bag Reduction Act, better known as the plastic bag ban, has been in full swing for over a month now.
By requiring retailers to charge 5 cents for reusable bags in lieu of single-use plastic, Baltimore joins cities like New York and San Francisco in an effort to reduce urban litter. Unlike these two cities, however, Baltimore has announced that it will not be offering fee exemptions to individuals who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits (food stamps) or Women, Infants and Children (WIC) benefits.
Steven Allbright is the culinary director at the Franciscan Center, an emergency outreach group that offers a soup kitchen and a pantry bag program. As with most food pantries and soup kitchens in Baltimore, the Franciscan Center is no longer able to give plastic bags to its patrons.
Since COVID-19, the Franciscan Center has been serving all of its meals to-go. Before the ban, it would fill bags with a hot meal (served in compostable takeout containers), disposable utensils and a drink for each guest. On occasion, community organizations such as the Maryland Food Bank donate reusable bags for the center to package meals from, but Allbright noted in an interview with The News-Letter that guests rarely return with these reusable bags.
“This population is very transient. Some are living on the streets; some aren’t,“ Allbright said. “A reusable bag is not a lot of people’s priority.”
Since the ban has gone into effect, the Franciscan Center provides reusable bags that have been donated or no bag at all. For instances in which the organization delivers food off-site, it uses brown paper bags or boxes.
Allbright noted that he and his staff have experienced some difficulties in finding reusable bags due to supply chain issues, so recently most guests have gone without.
Despite this, Allbright expressed his support for the plastic bag ban and elaborated on his sustainability efforts at the center. For example, he designs menus and trains his chefs in order to minimize food waste as much as possible.
“We have one Earth, and if we don’t treat it well, we’re going to lose it,” Allbright said.
Indeed, despite the concern for the differential impact of the plastic bag ban on Baltimore’s low-income population, the decision still appears to be environmentally justified.
Some critics claim that reusable bags have to be utilized for a long period of time in order to be deemed “better” than single-use plastic bags. One oft-cited study from the Danish Environmental Protection Agency claims that a single cotton tote must be used 20,000 times to offset the impact of production. However, this study has also not been peer-reviewed, which means that it did not undergo a process in which fellow scientists could critique the study before it was published.
Leana Houser, the waste reduction and recycling manager for Hopkins since 2013, explained that studies such as those outlined above use an approach known as life cycle analysis. This framework evaluates plastic bags based on the environmental impact of each stage of their “life cycle,” from the extraction of raw material to make the bag to its eventual decomposition in a landfill.
Houser stated that she does not find this approach completely satisfactory in an interview with The News-Letter.
“Your standard life cycle analysis that looks strictly at greenhouse gas emissions is incredibly narrow and doesn’t account for the public health impact of drilling for petroleum [for single-use plastic production],” Houser said. “Mostly, the communities that are suffering from a lot of that petroleum production [are] BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color].”
A review of studies that evaluated communities living close to oil fields suggested an array of public health impacts including cancer, liver disease and neurological deficits. A separate study from Science Advances confirmed that the particulate pollutant known as PM2.5 disproportionately affects Americans of color in contrast to white Americans.
In the end, Houser believes that shifting toward reusable bags will still be better for the environment in the long run.
“In the short-term, you might have to take some steps that might bring you back a little bit in order to get into a long-term behavior change,” Houser said.
Both Houser and Allbright agreed that more could be done to ease the burden of the plastic bag ban on Baltimore’s low-income residents. Allbright suggested that the City of Baltimore give reusable bags to all residents as a public utility.
“We have a recyclable bin; we also have a regular trash bin. How about issuing reusable bags to folks?” Allbright said.
According to the Baltimore Office of Sustainability, the city plans on distributing free bags to a select group of individuals, but the City is explicit that these programs are limited.
Houser similarly stressed the importance of considering every Baltimorean when designing environmental interventions.
“When you’re in a position where you’re making these kinds of legislation, you have to acknowledge income disparities,” Houser said.
Houser favors framing the question through the Zero Waste Hierarchy approach, which attempts to look beyond the minute regulation of specific materials and change the systems that allow individuals to adopt sustainable practices in the first place.
For example, while those without a vehicle to store belongings might pop into a store with a backpack or work bag, they might be hesitant to use this for their items for fear of being accused of stealing. This is especially the case when concerns about racial profiling are relevant, as there are common instances of people of color having their bags examined while shopping.
In another example, Houser noted an anecdote from last week in which, bereft of a bag at the grocery store, she stuffed provisions into her laptop bag.
“[Sustainability] needs to be normalized so that when people are doing crazy things like that, you feel like you are accepted in a larger cultural sense,” Houser said.
While Baltimore’s quest to become more sustainable comes from good intentions, it is essential for city officials, store owners and residents alike to acknowledge that the individuals most apt to comply with the plastic bag ban are often the most well-off, such as those with cars or New Yorker totes.
More steps need to be taken to ensure that this policy is not an unjust burden on those who use public transportation, those experiencing homelessness or those living on limited incomes. After all, saving the planet is a team effort, but a little compassion and patience will get us a lot farther than penalizing vulnerable populations for what they can’t control.
Ellie Rose Mattoon is a sophomore from Austin, Texas majoring in Molecular and Cellular Biology and Public Health. She is currently a volunteer at the Franciscan Center and Sci-Tech Editor for The News-Letter.
SciPinions aims to offer students an outlet to present their opinion on debates in the scientific, technological or health fields. The opinions presented in this piece do not represent the view of The News-Letter nor the Franciscan Center.