FAQ for Residents
Important Food Safety Practices
- Can reusable bags possibly cause public health problems because of the bacteria from food products and cross-contamination of food?
- What about the plastic bags used for produce, meats, etc. in the grocery store? Will they still be available and will I be charged?
Why We Need a Carryout Bag Law
- Why do we need a new law on carryout bags?
- Is trash and litter really a problem in Montgomery County?
- Why is litter a water quality problem?
- If the real litter problem in our streams and rivers seems to be from plastic bags, why are paper bags included in the law?
- Why charge for something that has always been free?
How the Law Works
- How does the carryout bag law help reduce litter?
- If bags are such a problem, why not just ban them?
- Isn’t the carryout bag law a backdoor way to raise revenue rather than to protect the environment?
- If bag litter is a problem, why not take extra steps to clean up litter and have a publicity campaign against litter pollution instead of charging for carryout bags?
- Revenue from the carryout bag law is supposed to go into the Water Quality Protection Charge fund. How do our residents and the environment benefit from this fund?
- How will the carryout bag law work when I purchase something in a store?
- What if I order something by phone/internet/fax and it is delivered to me in a bag from the store?
- Are any bags exempt under the law?
- Are customers charged for bags when they go through a self-service checkout?
- What if I can’t afford to purchase reusable bags?
- Will I be charged if I bring plastic or paper bags from home for my purchases?
- One exemption to the carryout bag tax is reserved for a bag used to package a bulk item or to contain or wrap a perishable item. If I am buying a perishable item (such as a tub of ice cream or a loaf of bread), will I be charged the bag tax?
- What is the definition of a restaurant in the law?
- Are there any special exemptions from the bag law that apply to restaurants?
- What plastic bags used by restaurants are subject to the bag law (5 cents per bag) ?
- Which plastic bags used by restaurants are exempt from the bag law?
- How is the County publicizing the carryout bag law to residents and businesses?
- Don’t I have to put loose paper into paper bags in order to have it picked up for recycling?
- Will I still be able to recycle plastic bags from home at stores?
- How can I get more information about the law?
WHAT IS THE CARRYOUT BAG LAW AND WHEN DID IT START?
The law requires that all retail establishments in the County that sell goods and provide their customers a carryout bag (either paper or plastic) to carry their purchases out of the store charge 5-cents per bag. The customer will not be charged if he/she uses their own bag to carry purchases out of the store. The law began January 1, 2012. - top
Important Food Safety Practices
Can reusable bags possibly cause public health problems because of the bacteria from food products and cross-contamination of food?
Not if the bags are properly cared for by periodic washing or cleaning with disinfectant wipes. Studies have concluded that hand or machine washing bags can reduce the bacteria in bags by more than 99.9 percent and reduce cross-contamination of foods. Consumer Reports investigated the allegations about bacteria in reusable shopping bags and found that there were, in fact, very few safety concerns. No pathological bacteria such as salmonella, listeria or E coli were found in their research on shopping bags.
Just as with regular plastic or paper bags, grocery shoppers with reusable bags should follow food safety practices by separating raw foods from other food products. This is easy to do by simply using the thin plastic bags located in the meat and produce areas. Also, do not keep raw meats/fish or other perishables in hot cars for an extended period of time. Learn more about keeping your bags clean. - top
What about the plastic bags used for produce, meats, etc. in the grocery store? Will they still be available and will I be charged?
These bags will still be available, and you will not be charged for them. - top
Why We Need a Carryout Bag Law
Why do we need a new law on carryout bags?
Plastic bags are the most commonly found items in waterway litter. This is a serious problem because the County’s streams eventually flow into the Potomac River carrying trash pollution into the County’s principal source of drinking water. - top
In addition, plastic bags consistently clog the inlets and outlets of devices designed to capture and hold stormwater runoff from rainfall, preventing these devices from working properly and increasing the risk of flooding. More information is available from the Department of Environmental Protection’s Stormwater Facility Maintenance program.
Other communities throughout the country have been successful in reducing bag litter through carryout bag laws. The County’s law provides a low-cost incentive to encourage shoppers to use reusable bags and refuse bags for single item purchases, as well as encourage cashiers to ask whether a bag is even needed. - top
Is trash and litter really a problem in Montgomery County?
Yes. A study of trash and litter conducted in the Anacostia watershed in 2008-2009 found that Montgomery County tributary streams carry more than 121 tons of trash and litter – the majority of which was plastic bags -- into the Anacostia River each year. Throughout all four seasons of sampling, plastic bags dominated the litter stream.
Reducing trash in the Anacostia River is now a legal requirement imposed by an EPA- established pollution budget, which sets a numerical limit on the amount of trash allowed in the river. The County’s MS4 Stormwater Permit (a provision of the Clean Water Act Section 402) requires that the County meet the limits on both trash and litter reduction according to terms of the Trash Free Potomac Watershed Treaty. Monetary penalties may be imposed for not meeting the limits. - top
Why is litter a water quality problem?
Litter on our streets or left lying on the ground gets carried by rainfall runoff -- known as stormwater runoff -- into the County’s storm drain network. In some areas, litter winds up in a stormwater pond meant to hold runoff from rainfall, and sometimes litter flows directly into streams and creeks, and eventually into the Anacostia and Potomac rivers. Litter harms aquatic life, is unsightly, degrades water quality and impacts recreation and quality of life around our rivers. - top
Both paper and plastic bags use enormous amounts of natural resources in their manufacture and cause unsightly pollution when improperly disposed. Both types of bags contribute to problems caused by litter and cost the County money to clean up. This Washington Post graphic comparing paper and plastic shopping bags, illustrates the high environmental costs of both types of bags.
In Montgomery County, exempting paper bags from this bill would significantly reduce retailers’ profits because of the higher cost of stocking and supplying paper bags to customers. This was not an acceptable option for the County. - top
Why charge for something that has always been free?
Carryout bags aren’t really free. They cost the retailers, who pass the costs on to the customer. Too often a ‘free bag’ becomes someone else’s litter on common property. It costs all taxpayers to clean up or remove this litter. Each year, Montgomery County spends more than $3 million on trash and litter control activities -- including code enforcement, street sweeping and litter clean-up. This is a cost that all taxpayers bear in order to keep our common areas safe and clean. The bag tax defrays this cost on all tax payers. Customers who bring their own bags can now chose to avoid the cost that all taxpayers previously have had to pay to clean up the litter stream. - top
How the Law Works
How does the carryout bag law help reduce litter?
Experience in other jurisdictions has shown that reducing the number of carryout bags distributed by retail establishments reduces the number of bags that wind up as litter in our waterways. With a small fee as a disincentive, consumers tend to rethink whether they need a bag at all. - top
If bags are such a problem, why not just ban them?
A ban takes the choice of using paper or plastic bags away from consumers. Taking away consumer choice was not an acceptable option for the County. However, people who choose to use paper or plastic bags defray some of the cost of cleaning up litter, which inevitably results when bags are distributed on a wide scale. - top
Isn’t the carryout bag law a backdoor way to raise revenue rather than to protect the environment?
No. Over time, as people bring their own bags to retail stores, the bag revenue to the County will diminish. This is what happened in neighboring Washington, D.C. A reduction in bag usage will also save County taxpayers money in programs to control and clean up litter. In 2009, Montgomery County spent over $3 million on these efforts. - top
Stopping a pollutant at the source is always more cost-effective than cleaning it up once it gets into the environment. Legal tools, such as the carryout bag law, are proven to reduce the source of litter because people have an incentive to reduce their use of bags.
Responsible residents reuse or recycle paper and plastic bags and/or dispose of them properly. However, studies show that improper disposal -- of especially plastic bags -- is not an isolated or small problem but a pervasive source of pollution on our streets and in our streams. The County will continue to aggressively educate the public about fighting litter. But, education alone has not proven to be effective enough.
The success of nearby Washington D.C.’s carryout bag law in reducing the volume of plastic bags in the litter stream shows that it is an effective, additional strategy for the County to use to reduce trash. It will complement the County’s litter prevention outreach efforts. - top
Revenue from the carryout bag law is supposed to go into the Water Quality Protection Charge fund. How do our residents and the environment benefit from this fund?
Montgomery County is described as a national model for how local jurisdictions should address the daunting task of cleaning up polluted streams and protecting the ones in good condition. Over the past four years, we have used the Water Quality Protection Charge to:
- Inspect over 1,500 publicly- and privately-maintained stormwater management facilities to ensure they are working. These devices effectively remove pollutants before they get into our streams and reduce the volume of flood water;
- Construct or retrofit stormwater controls to better treat runoff from more than 1,000 acres;
- Restore and stabilize 4.3 miles of degraded stream channels and eroding stream banks; and,
- Share in the costs of 151 stormwater control projects on residential, private and institutional properties. - top
How will the carryout bag law work when I purchase something in a store?
If you choose to carry your purchases out in a bag provided by the store at the checkout counter, you will be charged five cents per bag. - top
What if I order something by phone/internet/fax and it is delivered to me in a bag from the store?
You will be charged five cents per bag. - top
- Bags used to hold prescription drug(s)
- Bags which are sold for initial use as yard waste bags, pet waste bags, garbage bags, dry cleaning bags, or newspaper bags
- Bags provided by a seasonal stand or street fair stall, such as farmer’s market, yard sale or occasional retailer (defined in the law as “…a retail establishment that engages in the retail sale of goods no more than six days in any calendar year.”)
- Bags used to package a bulk item or to contain or wrap a perishable item
- A paper bag that a restaurant gives a customer to take prepared or leftover food or drink from the restaurant. The law defines restaurant as “…any lunchroom, café or other establishment located in a permanent building for the accommodation of the public, equipped with a kitchen containing facilities and utensils for preparing and serving meals to the public and outfitted with a public dining area.” - top
Are customers charged for bags when they go through a self-service checkout?
Customers using the self-service checkout must also pay 5 cents for each bag used. - top
What if I can’t afford to purchase reusable bags?
Before the carryout bag law takes effect January 1, 2012, the County will conduct an intensive education campaign that includes providing free reusable carryout bags to some residents. The County will work with various nonprofit groups, the Housing Opportunities Commission, and service agencies from the County and its municipalities to distribute bags to low-income households. - top
Will I be charged if I bring plastic or paper bags from home for my purchases?
No. - top
One exemption to the carryout bag tax is reserved for a bag used to package a bulk item or to contain or wrap a perishable item. If I am buying a perishable item (such as a tub of ice cream or a loaf of bread), will I be charged the bag tax?
When the law refers to bags used to package bulk or perishable items, it is talking about the types of bags that you find in the produce section of the supermarket for customers to bag loose items—e.g, green beans, nuts—or the types of bags that might be used to wrap what is ordered at the deli counter, seafood counter, or fresh meat counter. You will not be charged the bag tax if the bulk or perishable item is placed in that type of bag prior to reaching the checkout counter.
If the perishable item is placed in a paper or plastic carryout bag at the checkout counter for the customer the bag is subject to the Bag Tax. The point of sale is the trigger for the bag tax. With respect to the bag law, the fact that an item is “perishable” is irrelevant if the perishable item is placed in a carryout bag at the checkout counter. That paper or plastic bag would be subject to the 5 cent tax. - top
Restaurant in Montgomery County means "any lunchroom, cafe or other establishment located in a permanent building for the accommodation of the public, equipped with a kitchen containing facilities and utensils for preparing and serving meals to the public, and outfitted with a public dining area.”
- A restaurant does not include any area of a supermarket, department store, or other retail establishment beyond the kitchen and public dining area.
- A restaurant does not include convenience stores, delis, and mini-marts unless they have an eat-in area with tables. (An establishment with raised tables with or without seating where people may stand and eat also counts as a restaurant.) - top
Yes. Restaurants may not collect the tax from customers for paper bags used to carry out prepared or leftover food or drink. This includes paper bags used to carry out unfinished bottles of wine. If plastic bags are provided, the restaurant must charge the customer 5 cents per bag. If the paper bag used to carry out prepared food items from a restaurant also contains non-prepared food items (e.g., bag of chips, bar of chocolate) the bag is exempt from the bag law (restaurants need not charge for these paper bags).
Bags provided by an establishment that does not have a dining area (e.g., a deli or a pizza shop) would not qualify for the paper bag exemptions afforded to a restaurant. - top
- Any plastic bag that is used to carry prepared foods
- Any plastic bag or thin film sleeve given out at the establishment’s checkout counter to carry a wrapped food item or food items (such as a sandwich wrapped in wax paper, a plastic tub of soup, a styrofoam clamshell for prepared foods at a lunch deli, etc.)
- A plastic bag that is used to carry multiple unprepared and/or prepared food items simultaneously - top
Plastic ziplock bags used by establishments to package prepared foods, typically in the kitchen area, are not considered carryout bags and are exempt. - top
How is the County publicizing the carryout bag law to residents and businesses?
The County is conducting a broad-based public education campaign to inform Montgomery County businesses and residents about the bag law. The County is providing materials to retailers that advertise the bag law for use in stores and at cash registers (such as decals, posters and notices). The County is also conducting a free bag distribution program to lower income households that will include a notice about the upcoming bag law. The goal of the outreach is to help ensure that residents and retailers are fully informed about the law. - top
Don’t I have to put loose paper into paper bags in order to have it picked up for recycling?
No. The County does NOT require loose paper to be put into bags and then into the blue recycling carts. Loose paper should just be deposited in the wheeled, covered recycling cart, used by the majority of residents and businesses. Residents of single family and town homes may receive free, blue recycling carts to recycle loose paper and cardboard. To order a cart, call 311.
While most people are able to use the cart to recycle their paper and cardboard, please let the Department of Environmental Protection know if a cart is not a practical solution for you. Where the blue carts are not convenient, residents may put their mixed paper recycling into a cardboard box or paper bag, tie paper with twine or use other small containers. Paper must remain separated from the co-mingled materials (foil, bottles, cans etc.) in the open, smaller blue recycling bins. - top
Will I still be able to recycle plastic bags from home at stores?
Yes. - top