Both paper, plastic would be charged starting Jan. 1

Montgomery County will start taxing shopping bags come the new year.

The Montgomery County Council on Tuesday approved a 5-cent tax on each paper and plastic carryout bag bought at retail locations in the suburb -- effective Jan. 1 -- mirroring a similar law in the District implemented to remove trash from area waters.

Unlike in the District, the law will apply to virtually all stores -- not just those that sell food.

That'll cost you a nickel
Establishments that will be forced to charge the bag tax:
• Supermarkets
• Convenience stores
• Service stations
• Restaurants
• Any other sales outlet where a customer purchases goods.
Excluded from the tax:
• Pharmacy bags containing prescription drugs
• Newspaper bags
• Bags intended for initial use as a garbage, pet waste or yard waste
• Bags provided at a seasonal event, such as a farmers market
• Paper bags that a restaurant gives a customer to take prepared food or drinks from the restaurant and packaging for perishable items.
• Would receive a penny rebate on each bag to cover administrative costs.

With an 8-1 vote, the council approved the tax, saying consumers will use fewer disposable bags to avoid the charge. County Executive Ike Leggett must sign off on the legislation, but that is considered a formality because he has been a champion of the tax.

The near-unanimous approval came over criticism in some corners that the tax would punish the poorest residents and was yet another example of government intrusion in the name of well-intentioned policy.

"I'm all for protecting water quality and the environment, but this tax is over the top and solves no problems," said Councilwoman Nancy Floreen, D-at large. "It's another regressive tax."

But other members of the council disagreed.

"The evidence is overwhelming that this has a significant impact on the environment," said Councilman Roger Berliner, D-Bethesda/Potomac. "The District of Columbia -- let's be frank -- has its fair share of low-income people, and this has not been a problem there."

Montgomery officials say a large share of the proceeds will be used to provide reusable bags for residents who need them. The county estimates the tax will generate about $1.5 million next year for water and litter cleanup.

And supporters, including County Executive Ike Leggett, say the charge is easily avoidable.

"If you don't want to pay the fee, get a reusable bag," he previously told The Washington Examiner. "It's that simple. It's not revenue enhancement. It's not like it's filling county coffers. It's easily avoidable."

Leggett cited a drop in bag use in the District as proof that such legislation changes consumer habits -- and ultimately clears pollution from waterways.

The District's bag tax, implemented in January 2010, generated just half as much revenue as the nearly $4 million predicted, which supporters cited as proof that D.C. residents scaled back their use of plastic bags.

"Our effort has not only reduced the amount [of] trash in the river, but the city is keeping its commitment of reinvesting revenue from the bag bill back into cleanup efforts for the Anacostia River," said Democratic Ward 6 D.C. Councilman Tommy Wells, praising Montgomery's bag tax.

Plastic bag makers called the Montgomery legislation punitive and unnecessary.

"It's unfortunate that the County Council would take this approach," said Shari Jackson, director of the Progressive Bag Affiliates of the American Chemistry Council. "Plastic bags are fully recyclable, and instead of entertaining recycling partnerships and programs, the County Council chose a policy that punishes families by raising grocery costs unnecessarily."

Another bag tax could be coming to a store near you.

U.S. Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., recently introduced a bill that would place a 5-cent tax on plastic bags from grocery and convenience stores nationwide.

Under the measure, most of the proceeds would go to land and water conservation, and businesses would receive a tax credit for creating bag recycling programs.

But some Montgomery residents said they don't need the tax as motivation for recycling.

"The overwhelming majority of us are hardworking citizens who care for our environment and play by the rules," said Fritz Hirst, of Chevy Chase. "Yet each time we would be forced to pay this tax would be a reminder that we are not to be trusted to do the right thing."