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Montgomery County underestimated plastic bag use

Last week brought a wave of news stories looking back at the first year of the Montgomery County bag fee. Some of them (particularly the Washington Post) concluded the bag fee is ineffective at changing behavior, as shoppers did not appear to be switching from disposable bags to reusable ones as intended.

Photo by katerha on Flickr.

This conclusion is incorrect. And it's all because of one number.

Montgomery County appears to have vastly underestimated disposable bag use before the fee took effect and has not provided information on its methodology in developing pre-bag fee estimates on usage. The County says 82.9 million plastic bags were used annually before the fee. In fact, it was likely closer to 300 million.

According to a 2009 report by the US International Trade Commission, Americans used 102,105,637,000 plastic bags in 2008. That works out to about 335 bags per person. This number is used by jurisdictions all over the country in estimating the impact of bag ordinances.

If the pre-fee bag usage was in fact closer to 300 million, then the post-fee numbers actually indicate significant behavior change, in the neighborhood of a 60-70% reduction, which is similar to what DC has observed since putting its bag fee into effect.

The County also reports that it has collected just over $2 million in revenue through November 2012. Some councilmembers have raised concerns that the revenues are too high. But DC collects $1.8 to 2 million per year from its bag fee, and is only two-thirds the size of Montgomery County (and with fewer businesses subject to the bag fee). Thus Montgomery's revenue numbers seem to be on track.

In fact, Safeway spokesman Craig Muckle says in the Capital Gazette, "In Montgomery County, Safeway saw a 70 percent drop in plastic bag use at the checkouts from 2011 to 2012. There could be other factors, but I am pretty sure the bag fee has a lot to do with it. We saw similar results from the bag fee in the District."

Likewise, stream protection organizations are seeing fewer bags in cleanups of their waterways. These results are even being reported by Montgomery County Department of Parks and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.

Bob Hoyt, Director of the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection, issued this statement:

Montgomery County is committed to reducing litter and is committed to the County's Bag Law as one of the primary ways of accomplishing this goal. I believe from my own observations when I am shopping, from anecdotal information from others, reports from environmental groups engaged in litter clean ups and reports from retailers about reduced bag use that the Law is working. The Bag Law is changing consumer behavior much in the same way recycling did 20 years ago. We are committed to gathering the appropriate data but are convinced that it will confirm the positive impact the Law is having on Montgomery County's environment.

Montgomery County is a leader for Maryland and has been effective at reducing plastic litter through its disposable bag fee. It's a shame that one bad number is calling into question all that good work.

Julie Lawson is director of Trash Free Maryland, a nonprofit creating lasting change to prevent trash pollution. She previously worked for the Anacostia Watershed Society, volunteered with the Surfrider Foundation, and was principal at Communication Visual, a design studio for nonprofit organizations. She lives in Takoma DC with her son Owen. 


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Maybe we should quadruple the price of using bags to decrease their use and have a fund to clean up our waterways. Another other benefit would be the larger fee could serve as a reminder that one's actions have a consequence beyond themselves. It seems the only way to start changing our habits is to have the real cost of pollution born by the consumers, since our polititians are too afraid to rattle the status quo. I don't blame them.

by Thayer-D on Feb 5, 2013 12:10 pm • linkreport

That wapo article was a mess of contradictions, including of its own headline. In the article they discuss uncertainty consistently:

"There is uncertainty about how much paper and plastic shoppers actually used before passage of the tax, making it difficult to gauge exactly how effective the tax has been."

So why did they print a headline making a strong declarative statement of outcomes?

Because bad reporting, that's why.

by CorbinDallasMultipass on Feb 5, 2013 1:16 pm • linkreport

I most certainly think the fee has had a major change in behavior. I see 50-60% of people in line at the grocery store with resuable bags now, and in places like Target or Bed Bath & Beyond where I may only be getting one or two larger items, I don't take a bag at all.

I wish more places would even just ask "would you like a bag" where there is not a bag tax, that line alone would probably reduce bag usage. It's also funny going to other counties in MD and seeing how quick cashiers are to bag and double and triple bag everything even if I don't need one.

I've also observed that at least one major grocery retailer in the area does not have a good system set up to collect the bag tax at self checkout. I myself probably owe the County 50 cents for last minute purchases I made at the store in the self checkout line when I didn't have my own bag on hand. I even looked around for a minute to see if there was something to scan, or a 4 digit code to type in, but nothin!

by Gull on Feb 5, 2013 1:27 pm • linkreport

"So why did they print a headline making a strong declarative statement of outcomes?"

Same reason GGW did in this post.

by jh on Feb 5, 2013 2:33 pm • linkreport

Journos often seem incapable of dealing with numbers. The Post is full of stuff like this.

by Rich on Feb 5, 2013 3:11 pm • linkreport

Slush fund for corrupt politicians

by Dante on Feb 5, 2013 3:25 pm • linkreport

WP headlines are rarely made by the reporter.

by selxic on Feb 5, 2013 5:38 pm • linkreport

To their credit, the Post ran a followup story today based on the statement (and this article):

by Julie Lawson on Feb 6, 2013 6:51 pm • linkreport

The County's Bag Law will be one of the primary ways of controlling plastic bags.

by ChatlinePal on Jul 18, 2016 7:05 am • linkreport

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