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Reusable bag incentive begins in two days

Friday won't just start a new year and a new decade: It also will start a new era in environmental economic incentives as the nation's first bag charge goes into effect in DC.

Image by DDOE.

Starting Friday, residents will pay 5 cents for each paper or plastic bag, with the revenue going partly to the retailer, partly to administration, and the rest to clean up the Anacostia River.

We stopped in Trader Joe's on the way home from the airport today, and the cashier confirmed they'll be charging. "It's the law," he said, but warmed when I told him I supported the policy. He said he likes it because the money goes to "green programs."

According to the cashier, TJ's will give out free reusable bags during the first week, and will generally offer shoppers a five cent discount for each bag they bring in and use for their purchase. (The law gives retailers 2 cents per 5-cent bag instead of 1 cent if they offer this 5-cent discount.)

Other retailers are getting on board as well. Despite their earlier opposition to the bill, Giant has now gotten on board, appointing a "Green Captain" for each DC store to find opportunities for environmental improvement, offering an estimated 250,000 free reusable bags during the first week in January, and also retaining the 5-cent credit they already offer.

Councilmember Tommy Wells released a list of some of the stores offering promotions tied to the bill. Harris Teeter will give free bags to customers who use their VIC cards and spend more than $20 in January. CVS is distrbuting some of DDOE's reusable bags at various locations and will also give shoppers a $1 coupon for every four times they bring reusable bags. Safeway is distributing bags through local nonprofits. And Target will offer the 5-cent credit for bags customers bring in.

DDOE will continue to distribute its bags throughout January. According to Wells' office, Capitol Hill's business association CHAMPS created bags featuring art by children in Hill schools coinciding with a series of lessons on pollution in the Anacostia. Hill businesses will be selling the bags and using the proceeds to fund more bags and more environmental lessons through the Capitol Hill Green Schools Initiative.

For those of you in DC, what are your local stores saying they will do about bags? Are there other local bag initiatives in your area?

Virginia Delegate Adam Ebbin (D-49th, southern Arlington/Arlandria/Bailey's Crossroads) and Maryland Delegate Al Carr (D-18th, Chevy Chase/Kensington/Wheaton) plan to introduce similar legislation in their states' legislatures shortly after the New Year. Both introduced the bills last year as well, but neither got out of committee.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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What ever happened to the demonstration project at the Montgomery County Recycling Center that was supposed to recover usable hydrocarbons from plastics? Did it work?

Sorry for the tangential comment, but the plastic bags revived my curiosity.

by Redline SOS on Dec 30, 2009 11:13 am • linkreport

Does the new bag tax (a/k/a the "Tommy Tax" in honor of Tommy Wells) also affect the plastic bags that carryout places use when making deliveries to customers? What about the plastic dry cleaner bags?

by Fritz on Dec 30, 2009 11:52 am • linkreport

The bag tax is a dumb idea. I reuse my bags responsibly as do--I'm quite certain--most people. Now, we're being saddled with an unnecesary tax by the the "lowest common denominator." Taxes have one purpose: raising revenue. Taxes should not be used as an incentive to shape behavior (or wealth transfer, for that matter). Let freedom ring.

by John K. on Dec 30, 2009 11:58 am • linkreport

I normally agree with urban/sustainable policy and am very much in favor of environmental conservation, but I don't like this bag tax. This to me was a lazy and inefficient way of building consensus around sustainability.

In just a year, the percentage of people who believe in global warming has plummeted and most people are opposed to climate change legislation. To the average person, this will likely paint a poor picture of what sustainable policy will look like around the country and in the future. It's basically a sin tax. The smokers are tapped out, so now we're going after the evil grocery store shopper.

If we're going to make real, substantive change in the future, we're going to need to work harder and come up with more creative ideas than just putting arbitrary taxes on consumers. I'm just saying this is a poor way of getting the discussion started.

by Jamie on Dec 30, 2009 12:08 pm • linkreport

John, which taxes do you know of that aren't in some way meant to shape behavior?

by Lucre on Dec 30, 2009 12:14 pm • linkreport

I am wondering about shopping at Eastern Market, as well, for example. They often see me with my reusable bag but still bag everything else up in smiley face bags anyway. I think it is going to be important for merchants to respect when you say: "I don't need a bag." They really don't do that now.

by JBE on Dec 30, 2009 12:16 pm • linkreport

@Jamie: I think you're mistaking a secondary effect for the goal. Yes, the bag bill has created an opportunity for stores that rely on bags to improve the public's perception of their sustainability--and they are taking advantage. But that's not the goal here. The goal is to keep plastic bags out of the river. I would agree that a better approach to starting a conversation would be a "Don't Litter" outreach campaign. But those have been done constantly for 30 years, and we still have piles of trash in the river.

Luckily, it turns out that most of that trash is from a single source: the plastic bag. So tailored legislation addressing just that item can have a positive impact.

by SF on Dec 30, 2009 12:18 pm • linkreport

I absolutely support this bag tax. To those who reuse plastic bags from the grocery store, fantastic. Every time you need another plastic bag, you can get one: just pay 5 cents. In many instances, the cost savings you get from retailers (many of whom are offering discounts for bringing your own bag) will pay for the few occasions that you actually need to buy a bag.

by Adam L on Dec 30, 2009 12:26 pm • linkreport

@SF I understand the goal of this tax. I just don't think it will work to achieve that goal. Have you ever worked at a grocery store? The people at the cash registers are going to pick 5 or 10 cents and charge every customer that amount. They aren't going to sit there counting the number of bags they use, so it won't even be accurate. Secondly, that cost is so marginal, it will not be enough to steer people away from the bags. I use my canvas bags all the time, but if I am walking home and decide I need a box of pasta, I'm not going to walk home and grab my bags and then walk all the way back to the store.

My biggest gripe is that the grocery stores created the plastic bag epidemic. Shouldn't we be making them come up with a solution rather than just making it consumers' problem?

by Jamie on Dec 30, 2009 12:40 pm • linkreport

I need those plastic bags to pick up poop. It's not a lot of money. So, I'll pay the tax. The Anacostia will remain nasty and unclean. So, all in all, this is much ado about nothing.

by Michael on Dec 30, 2009 12:59 pm • linkreport

Was it ever actually determined that the main source of pollution in the Anacostia River is plastic bags coming from DC?

Or was it simply determined to be the easiest way to raise revenue to "clean up the river"? Because when I look at the Anacostia, I see a whole lot of cans and bottles, yet DC didn't impose a new tax on cans and bottles (or even allow for the 5 cents for recycling cans and bottles).

It seems to me that the plastic bag tax was the easiest way for the Council to show that it's "doing something", rather than it being the most efficient way to actually clean up the pollution.

And, what if in 5 years, we find that there is still the same amount of pollution in the Anacostia? Will the Council then repeal the Tommy Tax since it hasn't worked? Or will the city never agree to forgo the new revenue source the Tommy Tax is bringing in?

Call my cynical, but I see this new tax as doing little about actually reducing pollution, and serving as little more than p.r. for Councilmembers seeking to burnish their environmental street cred in time for re-election.

by Fritz on Dec 30, 2009 1:07 pm • linkreport

"Friday won't just start a new year and a new decade: It also will ..."

I'm pretty sure that 2010 will be the last year of the current decade and that the next decade will start in 2011.

by Don on Dec 30, 2009 1:10 pm • linkreport

There are examples of successful bag taxes. For example, after Ireland passed it's tax (22 Euro cents), plastic pag use fell by 94% within weeks.

@Fritz, i've seen it reported that 40% of the trash pulled out of the river is plastic bags. I'll keep looking for a cite on that.

by Melissa on Dec 30, 2009 1:21 pm • linkreport


I don't think anyone, including Tommy Wells, claims that this the end all of turning the tide on pollution. It's a small step, and hopefully one of many. And while it's impossible to know the true intentions of anyone, I have a hard time seeing this as a cynical ploy for Councilmember Wells to grab votes. Really? It's pretty artless pandering, if that what it is.

Other than that, nice alliterative name-calling. Keeping calling him that and maybe two, or even three, other people will pick it up.

by TimK on Dec 30, 2009 1:26 pm • linkreport

Don, although it's technically true, the change in numerals is really more important than the lack of a Year 0 for this particularly arbitrary milestone.

by Neil Flanagan on Dec 30, 2009 1:48 pm • linkreport

@Lucre: The income, sales and property taxes are broad-based and are not generally considered to be passed with the goal of reducing income, sales, or the value of property.

Now all the crazy things we did to the income tax may be social engineering, but we didn't pass an income tax in order to make people earn less money.

This one, on the other hand, is meant to change behavior rather than earn a lot of revenue.

by Michael Perkins on Dec 30, 2009 1:52 pm • linkreport

I reuse my bags responsibly as do--I'm quite certain--most people.


Oh...I'm sorry...heh...

by oboe on Dec 30, 2009 2:13 pm • linkreport

So why are *paper* bags being taxed? Throw a paper bag in the river,it turns to mush. And they're definitely being recycled.

by dynaryder on Dec 30, 2009 2:16 pm • linkreport


The tax on paper is something the stores wanted. Paper costs more than plastic, so retailers didn't want people simply switching to brown bags.

by Adam L on Dec 30, 2009 2:51 pm • linkreport

As I understand it, the bag "fee" (the DC Council doesn't like the word tax) wasn't solely a green effort. It is a measure among many, like the increased parking fees, to decrease the estimated 104 million budget gap in FY2010. I don't have a problem with the fee/tax but I'm certainly not going to kid myself and feel good becuase it is in a sense.....'green' Bottomline......Fenty and crew are trying to build revenue. ref:

by attack28 on Dec 30, 2009 2:56 pm • linkreport


Yes!?! Why tax paper bags, too? The way I see it, taxing the bad option will encourage use of the good one. Taxing both options will encourage everyone to simply pay the fee. Great if you're looking to raise revenue. Bad if you actually want to keep plastic bags out of the river. Relying on people to bring their own bags instead of having a convenient, cheap (free) and environmentally friendly alternative is backwards thinking.

by michael on Dec 30, 2009 3:07 pm • linkreport


Even the Washington Post can be wrong. I just read the text of the law, and the money gets put into the "Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Fund" and specifies exactly how that money can be used.

by Adam L on Dec 30, 2009 3:18 pm • linkreport

Well, if I need a bag I'm definitely asking for paper. Might as well get my money's worth for the 5c.

I predict that someone in the council introduces a repealer for this bill by mid-March. And that it's substantially modified by the end of the summer.

by ah on Dec 30, 2009 3:46 pm • linkreport

I'm frankly shocked to see the amount of opposition to this bill here - it's really quite easy to use tote bags, and if you're just stopping by the store on the way home for some quick food and you've forgotten your bag, you can just grab a bite to eat without a bag at all!

This will raise money for the river cleanup in the short term and reduce disposable bag usage in the long term - I honestly don't see why everyone here is so opposed to this.

by Andrew on Dec 30, 2009 4:28 pm • linkreport

if you're just stopping by the store on the way home for some quick food and you've forgotten your bag, you can just grab a bite to eat without a bag at all!
Come again?

I'm lucky in that I telework Tuesday and Thursday so easier to find time to get to the store and bring bags with. Most people without kids and working 9-5 don't plan their shopping trips like military maneuvers. Probably they remember they need a handful of things at the grocery store or CVS while they're at work or on the subway and find the suggestion that they should "plan ahead more" by sanctimonious blog commenters (or sanctimonious DC council members) just a bit too rich.

I have found myself planning ahead more, I usually grab breakfast or lunch in Silver Spring on my telework days; it's pretty easy then to go to the Giant (it's across the street from Metro) and do most of my shopping there instead of in DC.

by Steve S on Dec 30, 2009 5:10 pm • linkreport

@ Adam L

Thanks for the info. I look forward to a follow up in 12-24 months of any impact this has on the river.

by attack28 on Dec 30, 2009 5:14 pm • linkreport

Does anyone know if these chains are giving away reusable bags in D.C. only or in other as-of-yet non-bag-taxing jurisdictions?

by JM on Dec 30, 2009 5:18 pm • linkreport

It would be best if we could institute a deposit program, that way there'd be an incentive to pick the bags up off the ground before they make their way to the river. But given that bags can be bought in bulk for less than five cents a bag (not to mention acquired for free in Maryland and Virginia), it would create a tidy arbitrage market on the public's dime. They'd need some sort of a certifying mark for bags that were paid for, which would increase the administrative costs.

by Reid on Dec 30, 2009 5:50 pm • linkreport

I have still never heard an explanation of how my bags end up in the Anacostia River.

I reuse each plastic bag as a trash bag in the bathrooms, then place these now-filled bags inside a large kitchen trash bag, which is sealed via a twist tie or some other device. I then put the larger kitchen bag in the city trash can, where it is picked up by a city trash truck.

Where in this process does my bag enter the Anacostia River? It doesn't, unless of course the city or its contracotors are dumping trash in the river.

Thus, even though there is not a chance that a single bag I have ever used has ever found its way into the Anacostia River (at least not due to my fault or actions), I now must pay a bag fee, the purpose of which is to prevent me from using bags, which don't end up in the river, in an attempt to keep these bags out of the river.

Great public policy.

by toter on Dec 30, 2009 6:11 pm • linkreport

By the way, if DC was serious about natural resource conservation, and wanted to raise money for cleaning up the Anacostia River, it could actualy have and enforce a fishing regulation program. In DC, the concept of actually purchasing a fishing license, and facing a serious fine if caught without one, is a joke. Also a joke is the concept of seasons for different species of fish and limits on catches.

So the unlicensed fisherman, who fishes all year round without any care for conserving the species, and who reels in buckets of fish of all sizes, pays nothing, but the rest of us pay 5 cents per bag to clean up the river he fishes in.

Makes perfect sense to me!

by toter on Dec 30, 2009 6:13 pm • linkreport

I think taxpayers prefer to be told the truth and not be treated like children who need a scolding ... especially since, as so many posters before me have already explained, there isn't a possible causal relationship be between this tax and cleaning up the Anacostia. Any way you view this, the Council either comes out looking like it thinks it knows what's best for everyone, or as clueless as to the what the end results of this tax can be. Either way, it's not good for the Council ... and I bet you'll see it repealed or modified before this summer.. with every councilmember distancing him/herself from it.

by Lance on Dec 30, 2009 6:46 pm • linkreport

I live in Northern Virginia and so am not really affected by this tax unless I were to stop at the store in DC on my way somewhere. With that said, I don't really understand the angst this is causing. I've been using the reusable bags for two years, maybe longer, and I find them much better than the plastic bags. They hold more stuff and they're more durable (no need for double-bagging, for example). At first I tended to forget them at home, but I quickly adjusted to putting them near the door where I see them the next time I get in the car, at which time I put them in the trunk. That way they're there when I need them.

The things that interest me about the bag tax are:

(1) Will it affect the bagging habits of the bagboys at the grocery stores? That is, we've all seen how they'll put two or three items in a single bag, leaving a lot of empty space. We've all seen how they sometimes overdo the double-bagging as well. Will there be a customer backlash if they continue to bag things in a way that uses more plastic bags than necessary, thus running up the bag fee the customer must pay? Is the average bagboy willing to THINK a little to figure out how best to minimize the number of bags used? (I saw the earlier post about how they'll just punch in some arbitrary number of bags, but I also think it would not at all be surprising for DC to send undercover inspectors to monitor for that sort of thing.)

(2) How is the bag tax to be enforced on the self-checkout lanes some grocery stores use? I normally use those lanes because, with the reusable bags, I can arrange all the groceries the way I think is best. (I used to go to Shoppers Food Warehouse back when they charged 3¢ per bag. I brought two cardboard boxes. It made me think about how to arrange the groceries to fit them in the boxes and I got rather good at it.) Many people just use the provided plastic bags and they bag like the bagboys do—i.e., without thinking about it. Clearly there will now have to be some way for the store to count how many bags the self-checkout customer is using, but I haven't heard anything about what that method will be.

...Come to think of it, for those who like to use the self-checkout lane the cardboard boxes are still a pretty good option, and you can find used boxes for free at all sorts of places.

by 1995hoo on Dec 30, 2009 6:47 pm • linkreport

"...Come to think of it, for those who like to use the self-checkout lane the cardboard boxes are still a pretty good option, and you can find used boxes for free at all sorts of places."

Yes, including at the grocery store. If a store tries to charge me for a bag, I will just request that my groceries be put into a used box instead ... Stupid tax laws make for stupid incentives ...

by Lance on Dec 30, 2009 6:54 pm • linkreport

I wonder if liquor stores will be permitted to not provide a plastic bag on request; will they be required by our absurd liquor laws to bag everything regardless of the customer's wishes?

by Phil on Dec 30, 2009 7:16 pm • linkreport

I don't really understand the angst this is causing. I've been using the reusable bags for two years, maybe longer, and I find them much better than the plastic bags.

First off, probably most people here are pretty good about either using reuseable bags or at least reusing their paper or plastic bags. But fact of it is you may not always be carrying them, because you just didn't plan right. And it's pretty annoying to then be charged 5c/bag for your forgetfulness. And it's not terribly efficient to have to tote around a bag "just in case". And none of this says anything about whether people reading this blog just toss their bags in the street, where they are carried by the wind to the Anacostia, which I'm pretty sure no one here does.

by ah on Dec 30, 2009 8:16 pm • linkreport

This tax is getting better every day. According to a post (from a DC official) on the Palisades listserv, a store such as Best Buy, which sells some amount of food, will have to charge 5c for every bag it uses, regardless of whether the purchase actually involves food. Goodbye, oversized Jujubees!

by ah on Dec 30, 2009 9:08 pm • linkreport

I hope there is a clause in this because this will not change anything; If after 2-3 years this does nothing to change the river than it should be repelled.

Can we be assured the funds of this will go where they need to and will not be diverted to something else.

How does this work with places that serve things in bags like Subway or The Washington Post which is delivered in bags.

Why does this not cover all types of bags it should cover every last type of bag from all business, such as a bag you put food in such as fruit or nuts or bags in which nails are placed in those can end up in the river as easy as any other bag.

Isn't there a sanity issue with this also especially at fast food restaurants are you just gonna put a bag on the counter and they put everything in it or take your bag if you hand it to them and go over to where the food is and place your food in their or take a tray with paper on it and then at the counter you put the stuff in your bag in that case your wasting trees.

by kk on Dec 30, 2009 9:15 pm • linkreport

I really don't understand the angst over this either, except that people hate change. A couple of thoughts:

1. Get in the habit of carrying around a reusable bag. I do, and you should too.
2. At 5c a pop, grocery store bags will be much more expensive than bags on a roll sold at the grocery store. If cost is an issue for you, then buy by the roll.
3. At 5c a pop, this is not an onerous burden on anyone.
4. If you do get dinged for a nickle, keep in mind that it's going to a good cause.

If any of that strikes you as sanctimonious, it's likely because you recognize that your behavior is less than virtuous and you resent having that pointed out to you. Deal with it, big boy.

by Matt W on Dec 30, 2009 9:36 pm • linkreport

Part of the reason for the angst is confusion over exactly what bags will be subject to the 5 cents tax (interesting that Best Buy will have to charge b/c they sell some packaged snack items).

Another part is that people see the b/s behind this tax. Of all the pollution in the Anacostia River, plastic bags are the main problem? Not the toxins flowing in from the sewers, or the crap that's been dumped into the river for decades, or the stuff that flows downstream from MD - but plastic bags?

And a third part is that people see the city having budget deficits, and this new tax popping up to bring in some revenue, which negates the argument that the primary reason is to "clean up" the Anacostia.

And anyone who thinks the money will go solely to the clean up fund and won't be used to close next year's budget gap has very little idea of how the DC Council and the Mayor do things.

by Fritz on Dec 30, 2009 9:57 pm • linkreport

"I do, and you should too."

"it's likely because you recognize that your behavior is less than virtuous and you resent having that pointed out to you."

I think you've hit the nail on the head about what is so onerous and disgusting about this tax. A few purportedly 'enlightened' individuals think they hold a monopoly on 'the right way'. If history is any guide, those screaming their virtuousness the loudest usually turn out to be the least virtuous among us when all is said and done.

by Lance on Dec 30, 2009 10:52 pm • linkreport

Some of these comments are shocking.

"Of all the pollution in the Anacostia River, plastic bags are the main problem?"

So instead of solving half the problem, let's not do anything at all right? Why not just declare the river a dumping ground?

"What if Im walking and suddenly remember I urgently need food items, and I dont have my reusable bag!?!"

Then you a) pay the fee, b) go home and get your bag or c) buy a new tote bag. How is this a problem?

by J on Dec 31, 2009 4:40 am • linkreport

The problem is not waste. This change will likely increase the amount of plastic and trees consumed, based on switching to durable plastic & paper.

The problem is bags so thin and light that they blow in the wind, float on the surface of water, get stuck in trees, and refuse to become sediment. They block sunlight, are consumed by animals, and are a general expensive-to-cleanup nuisance to those downwind and downstream.

by Squalish on Dec 31, 2009 6:16 am • linkreport

@J: Do you know anything about the history of the Anacostia? It HAS BEEN a dumping ground for all sorts of pollutants - most of which, I'd surmise come from Maryland, not DC plastic bags - for decades.

If, in 2 or 3 years time, there is no appreciable decrease in the pollution in the Anacostia, will supporters of this latest tax acknowledge the tax didn't have the intended effect of reducing river pollution and support it's repeal?

Of course not! Because as J points out, the whole point of this is to show that DC politicians are "doing something" about the problem, regardless of whether what they're doing is actually combating the problem or not.

It's all about feeling good and raising revenue.

by Fritz on Dec 31, 2009 7:16 am • linkreport

@kk "Why does this not cover all types of bags it should cover every last type of bag from all business, such as a bag you put food in such as fruit or nuts or bags in which nails are placed in those can end up in the river as easy as any other bag."

Those ultra-thin grocery bags that you use to carry fruit and vegetables at the super market are actually biodegradable. The main problem is that they are so thin that they can't carry much weight.

by Adam L on Dec 31, 2009 9:07 am • linkreport

some facts: yes, plastic bags make up a huge volume of the trash collected in the Anacostia. BY VOLUME. Not by weight, or the damage that it actually does. There is some argument that plastic bags clog up drains and make flooding more likely, but that is what not what the bag tax is meant to do.

The plastic bags are actually coming in from MD, not from DC. They come in from the Anacosita's tributaries, not the storm drains in DC. So reducing bag use in DC isn't going to do a damn thing. That's why they didn't want to ban them completely, the idea is just to raise money for cleanup that can then be spent elsewhere.

by charlie on Dec 31, 2009 9:11 am • linkreport

"the idea is just to raise money for cleanup that can then be spent elsewhere."

That is very true ... and because in the end all tax dollars are fungible, that 'elsewhere' can be anything from re-doing a streetscape to giving a favorite developer a long term tax break or other subsidy.

If the amount of taxes collected needs to be upped, then a fairer (and more transparent) way to do so would be to either raise the rates of existing taxes or establish new taxes (e.g., start taxing grocery purchases like they already do in MD and Va.).

Disguising a new tax as a 'user fee' is not honest since by no stretch of the imagination can we pretend the person paying this tax is receiving a service in return from the District ... which is what a municipality-based service fee is defined as.

The Council is going to have egg on its face with this one. Taxpayers aren't stupid. And they're going to resent being treated like they are.

by Lance on Dec 31, 2009 10:21 am • linkreport

I'm with the other commenters in not understanding the angst.

I live in Arlington and bike to my local grocery (Whole Foods is closer but way too expensive so I travel a little farther to a Safeway/Giant). When I go I take ... wait for it ... A BACKPACK! OMG. Look what I just did there. I subverted the evil BAG TAX (in reality it's a fee) and am being more self sufficient. I always take my backpack and have in it 2 plastic bags I'd gotten previously from the store in case I buy some large items that won't fit in my backpack. When that happens then I hang the bag on my bikes handlebars, put my backpack on my back, and go home.

A backpack can hold alot of items without anything being squashed if you actually consider how to pack them.

As far as I know there isn't a plastic bag fee in Arlington, but there definitely should be one in Bethesda. I go to the Safeway near the Bethesda metro and always take a plastic bag with me but the check out people there usually ignore the plastic bag laying on the belt and put my few lunch items in a new plastic bag. When I point out that a plastic bag is laying on the belt right in front of them they invariably pick it up, look at it as if it's an alien, and say 'Oh, what am I supposed to do with this?'
They also love to double plastic bag and when I've asked them why as they do it they say because the bags are so thin they will tear. The bags never have more than 2 pounds of items in them. What could these ridiculous people be thinking?!

As it is now I have to give the checkout people a hard time and always point out that there is a bag sitting right in front of them and explain that they should use it just to make sure they actually do. I don't know if they just aren't very bright or what their problem is.

For the commenter that said he lives his life in a sloppy manner and often doesn't know what he's doing, Yes, you should consider more carefully what your needs are, plan ahead, and manage your consumption.

by James on Dec 31, 2009 11:59 am • linkreport

I love everyone's personal anecdotes on how they won't be impacted by the pending bag tax. However, keep in mind that GGW readers are not a representative sample of the DC resident. Good for you being all green and all. I'm glad that you have the opportunity to prioritize environmentalism in your lifestyle. Some people are having problems getting their basic needs met, like finding work, feeding their kids, and struggling with our region's inadequate transportation system. You think these people have the ability to radically change their mindset?

Stop by the only grocery store in Ward 8 on Saturday and see how the other half lives.

by michael on Dec 31, 2009 12:06 pm • linkreport

@James: Wow, you sound like such a pleasant customer for the checkout people to deal with!

And the level of self-righteousness for doing grocery shopping with a backpack and bike is also extremely appealing.

Do you put your children in the backpack when you go grocery shopping? Or are they strapped to the handlebars? And how do you do a week's worth of grocery shopping for a family of 4 and store it all in your backpack?

What's that? You have no kids?


Well, then maybe your uber-green shopping method can't be easily replicated by many other people who live here.

But at least you get to feel good about yourself! Which is what this tax is all about.

Anecdotes is not analysis.

by Fritz on Dec 31, 2009 12:26 pm • linkreport

and now it gets ugly. way to go fritz.

by anon on Dec 31, 2009 1:14 pm • linkreport

I was just at the Giant on 8th street, and the policy seems to be having a positive impact already. The cashiers are informing customers of the fee, and the customers in front of me (express line) just decided to carry the 3 or 4 items they had instead of using a bag. No stress, no complaints. In the five minutes in line, it seemed like probably 10 or 20 bags were not used where they otherwise would have been. I think that is change for the better...

by JTS on Jan 1, 2010 12:40 pm • linkreport

"I think that is change for the better..."

People having to juggle 3 or 4 items is 'change for the better'? It sure sounds like the opposite of 'progress' to me.

You do realize that plastic bags (and paper bags) used in grocery stores are fully bio-degradable and as such pose absolutely no danger to the environment ... don't you? Maybe not ...

by Lance on Jan 1, 2010 1:46 pm • linkreport

No, Lance, I didn't get that, because the plastic bags are most assuredly not biodegradable.

by Neil Flanagan on Jan 1, 2010 2:02 pm • linkreport

plastic bags are generally (almost always) made of polyethylene, which not biodegradable. OK.

Most customers at this grocery store drive, so we're talking about "juggling" items all the way to the front seat of your car. Boo hoo. As I said, nobody paid the five cents, surely because everyone realized carrying their goods 50 feet wasn't inconvenient. That, and giant was giving away tote bags.

It's a non-issue to the point of absurdity.

by JTS on Jan 1, 2010 2:05 pm • linkreport

Oh, please, don't we already pay enough taxes for all these so called programs that by the way we never see any results from so now you want more money. Shame on you DC government.

by keithcre on Jan 1, 2010 3:39 pm • linkreport

Some people are having problems getting their basic needs met, like finding work, feeding their kids, and struggling with our region's inadequate transportation system. You think these people have the ability to radically change their mindset?

Yes, carrying a reusable bag to the store is OH SO BURDENSOME and "radical". Please. Do you think every single person in Ireland is a wealthy Whole Foods shopper? How exactly is bringing some bags along on a big shopping trip, or sticking that last-minute tube of toothpaste or box of pasta in your purse "radical"? I would call it instead the most minor, superficial, NONradical lifestyle adjustment one could possibly conceive of.

People will bitch and moan for a month or two, then they'll adapt, then it will become second nature. End of story.

But this won't stop the hard-core anti-environmentalists who pretend to be concerned about the poor, but really are only using them as a straw man for their knee-jerk "government is bad" protests.

by Erica on Jan 1, 2010 5:59 pm • linkreport


Do you really believe there's such a thing as an 'anti-environmentalist'? You think there are really people out there who want to see the environment in which they live become unhealthy to live in? Think about this hard. And once you get passed this mindset, maybe you'll realize that maybe ... just maybe ... people are opposed to the non-sense of a tax because they're able to see right through it for what it is. And, hint ... it's not to protect the environment.

by Lance on Jan 1, 2010 10:36 pm • linkreport

I don't think this one's over.

Seattle's City Council passed a bag tax last year, and the bag manufacturers astroturfed opposition, threatened to recall several Councilmembers, and got the bag tax placed on the ballot. A special election was held in August, and the green, liberal voters of Seattle narrowly voted to repeal the tax. If it can't pass among the white, liberal, latte-loving greenies of Seattle, it's gonna be in trouble everywhere.

Big Plastic doesn't want the bag tax idea to gain regional momentum, so you can expect some "grassroots" opposition to the bag tax to appear soon. And I wouldn't be surprised if it begins east of the river.

A whole lot of Washingtonians use those bags for their garbage, and would prefer not to pay five bucks for a box of trash bags when they currently get bags "for free" when they buy their groceries.

This resentment would probably blow over in a couple weeks if not for outside forces. But if the Bag People stir pay to stir things up, anything can happen.

by Mike S. on Jan 1, 2010 11:46 pm • linkreport

Apparently Baltimore iw also considering such a tax ... and the issue of the legality of such a tax under the constitution has been raised:

'In a letter to the Baltimore City Council, the Department of Law stated concerns that the monthly reporting requirements placed on retailers can likely be challenged as a violation of the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution, which provides that the City may only regulate local aspects of interstate commerce if the regulations are not unduly burdensome. The proposed reporting system would require every retailer to count every plastic bag used by ringing up purchases, bagging them, counting the number of bags used, and then adding the appropriate fee to the total before the consumer pays.

by Lance on Jan 2, 2010 12:01 am • linkreport

@Lance: You could try to account for every single bag in a micro way, by tracking how each bag got sold, thrown away, recycled or whatnot. That could be burdensome, sure.

Or you could just require that the store account for how many boxes of bags they received from the supplier and collect the tax on that amount (e.g., a box of 1000 bags bears a $50 tax). The store would then have the incentive to ensure their internal procedures for charging customers for bags was fairly accurate, and that employees don't waste a lot of bags unnecessarily.

I'm surprised 5 cents is enough to change many people's behavior. Most of the time a grocery bag holds $5-10 worth of stuff at a minimum, so the bag is less than 1% of your bill.

I was a bagger (OK, "Courtesy Clerk" per the union rules) for two years in CA, trying to use the plastic bag lying on the checkstand is much slower than the one on the rack. You have to be able to bag pretty quickly to keep up with a good checker, especially if you have to cover more than one checkstand.

by Michael Perkins on Jan 2, 2010 12:24 am • linkreport

That is such a strange use of the Interstate Commerce Clause... are there any con-law experts here who can make this look like anything other than astroturfing and FUD? If it's really not legal, they'll take it to the courts.

by Neil Flanagan on Jan 2, 2010 12:30 am • linkreport

Do you really believe there's such a thing as an 'anti-environmentalist'? You think there are really people out there who want to see the environment in which they live become unhealthy to live in?

Yes, I do actually think that there are plenty of people for whom the short-term value of "my freedom to trash things/drive a huge car/make a profit using destructive practices, all without having to pay for any of it" vastly outweighs the long-term value of a healthy environment. If someone is unwilling to pay ANYTHING to protect the commons or internalize any external costs, then they are supporting a system that will inevitably create pollution (tragedy of the commons, free riders, etc.) And when they go beyond tacit support and start actively working against reflecting the environmental costs of products in their price, I consider that anti-environmentalist.

by Erica on Jan 2, 2010 10:33 am • linkreport


Underlying your belief is the assumption that people can be ordered to act in a way you deem responsible based your life experiences. There are a few very obvious problems with this.

First, who put you in charge of deciding what is the 'right' thing to for others to do? What puts you in a position to mandate that everyone should shop in the manner you like/'are able' to shop? Secondly, when's the last time you a system that 'orders' people around (vs. incentivizing them) actually work? (Think: 'Soviet Union'.)The financial result of this tax (before it gets repealed/modified out of existence) will likely be to push consumers to do their grocery shopping in Virginia or Maryland. In the end, thankfully authoritarian laws don't work. And this is definitely an authoritarian law.

by Lance on Jan 2, 2010 11:37 am • linkreport

Secondly, when's the last time you a system that 'orders' people around (vs. incentivizing them) actually work?

Gee, I don't know... appliance standards? Seatbelt laws? A ban on leaded gasoline? The Clean Air Act? In fact... just about every environmental regulation we have that's backed up with enforcement powers has been a resounding success!

I understand that many people oppose measures with environmental goals based on dislike of government regulation. Fine. However, to me they become "anti-environmentalist" when they do not propose any workable alternative solution, but instead proclaim that because they don't like any of the proposed solutions, the problem should simply be ignored. I have not heard anyone complaining about the plastic bag fee and then saying, "by the way, here's my superior libertarian solution that will keep bags out of the Anacostia just as well, let's push for that."

Secondly, do you really think someone is going to take a $2.50 round trip bus fare or a $20 round trip taxi ride to another state, so they can save 5 cents on an entirely avoidable plastic bag fee? That doesn't make any sense.

And finally, I have not heard any convincing argument for why someone would be "unable" to carry a few impulse purchase items in their hands or keep some bags in the trunk of their car for major trips. You keep saying it's some sort of upperclass privilege to use a reusable bag - for the life of me I can't figure out why. I really don't think the entire population of Ireland consists of yuppies.

by Erica on Jan 2, 2010 2:21 pm • linkreport

I would like to note that nobody put Erica in charge, but the voters of the District of Columbia did put eleven people "in charge". Those eleven people get to decide all sorts of laws for the District, including the bag tax.

So the answer to "who put you in charge?" is "The Voters", as it should be in a democracy.

I'd also like to point out that in the past Lance has argued for continuing the mandatory minimum parking requirements for buildings, and likely will continue to do so in the future.

Unlike the bag tax, where people are offered choices like not taking a bag, bringing their own bag or paying a nickel, building developers are not offered choices like paying an in-lieu fee, arranging with a nearby building that has surplus parking. They're forced "soviet-style" into building parking, almost as if they had become indentured servants of the state, forced against their will to build and maintain parking spaces.

In all seriousness, levying a bag fee is about the least controlling thing the council could do once you agree that bag litter poses a problem that rises to the level that the government should do something about it. A real "soviet-style" ordering people around would have been a bag ban rather than a bag tax.

I'll add to Erica's list the cap and trade restrictions on sulfur emissions from coal power plants.

by Michael Perkins on Jan 2, 2010 4:02 pm • linkreport

" do you really think someone is going to take a $2.50 round trip bus fare or a $20 round trip taxi ride to another state, so they can save 5 cents on an entirely avoidable plastic bag fee? That doesn't make any sense."

hmmm ... most of us here in the District actually go into neighboring jurisdictions as part of our everyday lives on a very regular basis (i.e., work, fun, shopping, whathaveyou) ... There is no incremental cost involved in shifting grocery purchasing to times when we are outside of the District.

"You keep saying it's some sort of upperclass privilege to use a reusable bag - for the life of me I can't figure out why.

Yeah, I can't figure it out for the life of me either ... since I never mentioned 'privilege' ... 'limited life experience' maybe (e.g. thinking people have to take a bus or taxi to shop outside of DC) ... 'privilege' no .

by Lance on Jan 2, 2010 4:50 pm • linkreport

Lance, who the hell is "most of us" who regularly leave the District and could easily shift our shopping trips outside of DC? Maybe you surround yourself with well off folks who have cars and dedicated parking spots, most people I know who live in DC rarely leave the District. We all work in town, shop locally and live locally.

Besides us hardcore urbanists, there are scads of people who live here who don't regularly have the resources to casually leave town.

Assuming that "most of us" have the ability to leave the district on a regular basis is foolish and insulting. Who do you really mean by "us?" Does it include the single mother in Shaw with two kids?

Even when I get a zip car for groceries and pet supplies, I stay in DC.

by michael on Jan 2, 2010 5:04 pm • linkreport


Parking mimimums are meant to combat a proven (and common sense) externality ... i.e., new (i.e. 'additional') residents (or employees) bring additional parking requirements with them. Additional demand on a limited good (parking) is produced, and the parking minimums just work to ensure that that demand is adequately satisfied. No one is trying to change anyone's behavior in ensuring that there is enough parking out there for anyone willing (and able) to pay for it.

Conversely, my being given a courtesy bag by a retailer (vs. being sold one for 5 cents) generates no additional demand on our waste facilities. On the contrary, as those imposing it on us are hoping, it can result in LESS demand for waste facilities. And THAT is social engineering. This tax isn't being used to ensure that people's demands are met ... but instead, to reduced their demands ... to tell them "you/Tommy Wells/the Council/ or whoever" knows what is best for them. And that is onerous.

by Lance on Jan 2, 2010 5:11 pm • linkreport

"most people I know who live in DC rarely leave the District. We all work in town, shop locally and live locally."

Then have your tax apply to only those with your similar, limited life experience. Oh wait, isn't that what's going to happen ... as the rest of us (the majority of people currently making salestaxable purchases in DC ... opt out of it. I'll bet that falling grocery sales in the District will ensure that before long the Council does an about face on this tax.

by Lance on Jan 2, 2010 5:16 pm • linkreport

Lance, you've still neglected to share with us what YOUR solution is to bags in the Anacostia River. Or do you think that any problem that requires changing people's habits of the moment in order to solve, simply isn't worth solving?

by Erica on Jan 2, 2010 6:43 pm • linkreport

@Erica, Start enforcing our littering laws. If bags are getting into the Anacostia, then someone is obviously littering. We have laws on the books against littering. Enforce them and your problem is solved.

If it's plastic bags in general that you abhore, then give an incentive for people to not use them. For example, make available paper bags for free. As it stands ... and as is already occuring ... merchants will give out heavy duty so-called 'reusable' bags rather than lose customers. Yeah, they're saying for the 'first seven days' ... but chances are that at least for customers who complain, that 7 days will extend indefinitely ... and your reusable bags will become 'disposable' bags ... they just won't be called that. Trying to micromanage people's actions with a stick doesn't work. That is an authoritarian mindset ... and causes more harm than it does good.

by Lance on Jan 2, 2010 7:02 pm • linkreport

I agree with Lance. They should provide a green, free alternative: Free brown paper bags.

by michael on Jan 2, 2010 7:09 pm • linkreport

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