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Jim Quixote

Despite Failures, Councilman Keeps Pushing Green Bills

Frank Klein
IT'S NOT EASY BEING GREEN: Councilman Jim Kraft is pushing for a more environmentally friendly Baltimore.

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 3/12/2008

First District City Councilman James Kraft lectured his colleagues at the March 3 council meeting, delivering a longish speech on the virtues of going green and introducing--or reintroducing--seven environmental bills.

Kraft says he bundled his bills to "send a message--I'm very serious about this legislation, and if it takes me a year or two years to get it through, I'm going to work to get it passed."

The bills would ban plastic shopping bags, create a bottle and can deposit, ban Styrofoam food containers, provide tax credits for environmentally conscious building construction and energy-saving equipment, improve city trash collection, and fund a newly empanelled city Commission on Sustainability.

All but the bottle bill had been introduced by Kraft in some form before, and most face some skeptical council members. Kraft acknowledged as much in his opening address before the council.

"Many people say there are bigger problems in Baltimore," he told fellow council members. "But cleaner and greener neighborhoods are safer neighborhoods. Cleaner and greener neighborhoods are healthier neighborhoods."

In his speech Kraft explained the virtues of environmentalism and held up a copy of Al Gore's book, An Inconvenient Truth, saying that Baltimore was mentioned in it among environmentally forward-thinking cities. He explained how a beverage can and bottle deposit system works. He waved a series of canvas shopping bags. Some in the council chambers could be seen rolling their eyes. "Plastic bags are not cheaper in the long run," Kraft insisted, citing a local blog, BagsinTrees.com, that posts photos of plastic bags stuck in the branches of trees around Baltimore.

Kraft says Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake told him before the meeting that he could talk as long as he wanted about the bills so long as he introduced them all at once, instead of making a separate speech in support of each one. Not everyone in the council knew that, he says, in explanation of the eye-rolling.

The bills mostly mirror what some other states are already doing to cut waste and litter. But one bill, 08-0055, is a charter amendment that would fund the Commission on Sustainability, a 17-member oversight panel that would review all environmental legislation. Bill 0056 would make the city's trash collectors pick up the holiday trash on the day after the holiday. The Department of Public Works has said that collecting this way would be cost-prohibitive. Bill 0057 would give a tax break to "high performance buildings," which the bill defines as those meeting a standard known as LEED Silver. In his speech, Kraft allowed that Silver may be too low, and that the higher, Gold standard might make more sense. A similar bill was rejected in 2006. Bill 0058, also rejected two years ago, would grant a tax break for builders or homeowners who install solar panels, solar water heaters, or geothermal heating and cooling devices. Bill 0059 is a bottle bill, and it's written like the bottle and can deposit-and-refund bills that have been in effect in New York, Delaware, and at least eight other states, most of them for decades: You pay a nickel or dime on each can or bottle, and you get the nickel or dime back when you turn it in. Bill 0060 is called "plastic bag reduction," but it actually would ban plastic grocery bags. A similar bill was introduced this year in the state legislature. Bill 0061 would ban Styrofoam "clamshell" boxes for takeout food. Styrofoam does not degrade but instead pollutes land and waterways. Recyclable clear plastic or cardboard boxes work just as well, Kraft argues, at only slightly higher cost.

Kraft has spent the past several years on the council burnishing his green credentials. He created a "green building task force" in 2005 and followed up with the Commission on Sustainability. He introduced the Styrofoam food package ban in 2006 and the plastic bag ban last summer, both of which went nowhere.

Kraft says introducing those bills then was part of a long-term strategy. "I had no intention of moving it forward," he says of last year's bag ban. "I put it out for feedback." Aside from the expected push-back from business, Kraft says, he also heard from dog owners who can't imagine an alternative pooper-scooper. He suggests using newspapers.

While acknowledging an uphill struggle, Kraft says he's confident that Baltimore will soon go his way. "I think that we're going to get some version of the plastic bag bill," he says. "I think we'll get some version of all three--Styrofoam, bags and mandatory [bottle] deposit--within the next year or two."

Kraft says the Commission on Sustainability would help the stakeholders iron out their differences and amend the environmental bills in an orderly way. "I think there will be some negotiation and some compromise along the way," he says.

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