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Posts about Bag Fees

Sustainability


The data proves the DC bag fee is working

DC's bag fee has been a success, despite the insinuations and inaccuracies in a recent Washington Post "expose." Plenty of numbers say we're using fewer bags because of the fee.


Photo by the author

The article's authors point to a handful of data points to make the case that the five-cent fee on plastic bags isn't cutting bag usage in the District. But they mischaracterized or took a lot of it out of context, and they simply ignored additional data that contradicted their headline-grabbing argument.

According to several independent studies, in less than five years and for a cost of $.05 per bag, bag usage in DC has dropped by more than 50%.

It's tough to get a count on bag use, both past and present

It's hard to measure how much bag use has gone down since the fee went into place in 2010. Because the District didn't study how many bags retail stores were distributing or assess how many bags residents used in a typical week before the fee, there is no exact baseline number.

To get a starting point, the Office of the Chief Financial Officer used on a 2004 Seattle study to estimate that DC used 270 million bags annually, or 465 bags per resident. Since DC's daytime population tops one million, it's reasonable to think the OCFO's number is actually an underestimate.

And while DC could do a waste sort to estimate how many bags residents are using now, that'd be inexact as well, and we'd be left comparing an estimate to an estimate. It's also unreliable to use revenue collected from the bag fee to assess the change in bag use, as compliance rates change, the District's population has increased by more than 12%, and more than a dozen new grocery stores (among other retailers) have opened since 2010.

These numbers say bag use is way down

The Post article cites the 2013 OpinionWorks study, the product of a partnership between the District Department of the Environment, Alice Ferguson Foundation, and Anacostia Watershed Society. It used results of a survey that asked 600 residents across all eight wards how many bags they used per week before the fee took effect and compared the numbers to how many they use now.

Survey participants reported taking an average of ten bags per week before the fee, and only four bags now, a reduction of 60%.


Chart from OpinionWorks.

The Post article did not include the rest of the study, which also included an extensive survey of 177 businesses subject to the bag fee, including both chains and independent stores, large and small, from across the city. Canvassers visited businesses, looked at receipts showing bag purchases before the fee and after, and reported the number of bags given to consumers. The survey found businesses reported giving out 50% fewer bags than before the fee.


Chart from OpinionWorks.

The Post article claimed the Alice Ferguson Foundation overstated the drop in how many bag its volunteers for its annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup have collected at DC cleanup sites since 2007. But after the article went to print, AFF staff reviewed its data and confirmed a 72% decrease in bags collected in the years before the fee versus after.


Chart from Alice Ferguson Foundation.

This reduction should be taken in context, as the counts are performed by volunteers and participation, weather conditions, and vegetation levels can change the counts from year to year. But even with that caveat, it is very noteworthy that the only jurisdictions with reductions in the number of bags collected during cleanups are the District and Montgomery County. Although the cleanups occur in several jurisdictions, these are the only two with bag fees.


Chart from Alice Ferguson Foundation.

Additional research yielded evidence that bag fees have influenced consumer behavior in the Washington region. In 2014, Sierra Club volunteers observed shoppers leaving chain grocery stores in the District, Montgomery County, and Prince George's County.

Among 20,000 shoppers in all three places, 53% in DC and 57% in Montgomery County used at least one reusable bag, or no bag at all, to carry their purchases. Meanwhile, in Prince George's County, which has no bag fee (despite years of trying), fewer than one in every ten shoppers had a reusable bag.

Whether they're from self-reported experiences, observational data, or cleanup data, all the numbers show the same thing: bag fees encourage consumers to use far fewer plastic bags.

The Anacostia River has a long way to go before it's fully healthy, and plastic bags are far from the only pollution problem. But charging a nickel to get people to think twice about using a plastic bag has proved to be a valuable tool for kickstarting the river's restoration.

Bicycling


Maryland legislative roundup: Return of the bag bill

Maryland's 2014 legislative session began last month. For the state's urban areas, one of the biggest issues is whether to spend the glut of transportation funding on more highways or new transit. But there are also two bills seeking to improve bicycling safety, while legislators will again consider a statewide disposable bag fee.


Photo by Michael Hilton on Flickr.

Disposable bag fee returns

Right now, Montgomery County, Baltimore County, and Baltimore City are allowed to impose a fee on stores giving out disposable bags, though only Montgomery currently does. Two new bills from Senator Jamie Raskin (D-Takoma Park), SB 707 and HB 718, would allow the other 21 counties to charge for disposable bags as well.

This isn't the first time Maryland's attempted a statewide bag fee. Raskin has introduced the bill each year for the past four years.

Bike bills would increase passing distance, outline cyclist rights

Lawmakers have also introduced two bills to promote bike safety. Delegate Jon Cardin (D-Pikesville) submitted HB92, which would strengthen Maryland's current 3-foot passing law by increasing the distance drivers need to pass cyclists to 4 feet. There would be some exemptions, including when the road is too narrow for drivers to leave 4 feet of space.

Delegate Al Carr (D-Kensington) introduced the other bill, HB52, which clarifies that the duties of bicyclists are those defined in Maryland law. The bill would give cyclists the same rights and duties as drivers.

It would require bicyclists to watch for other vehicles in public areas, while drivers would have to watch for bicyclists along highways where bikes are allowed. By clarifying the duty of a bicyclist, this bill would protect cyclists who are riding lawfully from additional or hypothetical responsibilities.

Both bills came up in a committee hearing on January 28th and were not received well. Legislators questioned if the new legislation is necessary at this time. The Washington Post quoted Delegate James Malone (D-Baltimore and Howard counties) as saying that cyclists already "don't pay any attention to the rules of the road."

We'll keep you posted on what happens next.

This post was edited to reflect that only Montgomery County has enacted a bag fee, while Baltimore City and County are authorized to.

Sustainability


Barry: "Have courage" and pass the Maryland bag fee

Yesterday morning, DC Councilmembers Marion Barry and Tommy Wells went to Annapolis together to brief the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus on the success of DC's 5¢ disposable bag fee, and ask them to support a similar proposal currently before the Maryland General Assembly.


Photo by the author.

The Community Cleanup and Greening Act (HB1086/SB576) would mirror the District's Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Act and Montgomery County's bag law, which impose a 5¢ charge on all disposable plastic and paper bags retailers give out.

As in DC and Montgomery County, the bill intends to reduce the number of disposable bags shoppers use, and thus reduce litter and water pollution. Grocery stores report giving out 70% fewer bags since the fees took effect.

Delegate Michael Summers (D-Prince George's), a lead sponsor of the bill, introduced Barry as "everybody's mayor," and caucus members and the audience responded with a standing ovation. Barry went on to explain how Councilmember Tommy Wells had convinced him of the need for the bill by taking Barry out to the banks of the Anacostia River and showing just how much plastic bags pollute the river.

Wells provided context and rationale for the bag fee, and called it the "most successful environmental initiative in DC." He described how discount grocery stores like Aldi and Save-a-Lot have never given bags away for free, as part of their commitment to keeping prices as low as possible.

Barry concluded the briefing by urging his Maryland counterparts to "have courage," noting that the "community benefits are worth far more than five cents." After the meeting, Barry committed to further supporting the effort. "We have to do more to educate them," he said.

While the Anacostia River has seen significant reductions in plastic bag pollution, more than half of the river's watershed is in Prince George's County, which does not yet have a bag fee.

The Community Cleanup and Greening Act was heard by the Senate's Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee on Tuesday. The next public hearing, before the House Environmental Matters Committee, is scheduled for March 8. In addition to Summers, the bill's sponsors are Delegate Mary Washington (D-Baltimore City), Senator Jamie Raskin (D-Montgomery), and Senator Brian Frosh (D-Montgomery).

Sustainability


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.

Sustainability


What killed the Prince George's County bag bill?

On Saturday, the Environmental Matters committee of the Maryland House of Delegates voted down a measure that would have let Prince George's County create a 5¢ bag fee, similar to those in Montgomery and DC.


Oxon Run. Photo from the Alice Ferguson Foundation.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the bill narrowly passed a vote by the county delegation, and advocates thought they had cleared the biggest hurdle. Local bills with support from the delegation usually sail through the rest of the way as a courtesy. It was case of counting our chickens before they hatched, perhaps, but the road this bill took was far from typical.

Saturday's vote was 12 to 11 in support but, with 24 members on the committee, we needed 13 yeas to move forward. A quick look at the vote count shows that, surprisingly, Montgomery County Delegate Jim Gilchrist, a friend of the environment, voted no.

According to other members of the committee, Gilchrist incorrectly thought the measure had failed in the delegation vote, so he thought he was supporting the wishes of the county by voting against it.

However, we also know that committee chairwoman Maggie McIntosh had concerns about the bill's ability to pass on the floor of the House. THe House has considered a tremendous number of new taxes and fees this session, and just last week approved raising income taxes.

McIntosh feared "fee fatigue" would doom the bill even though it would only indirectly create a new fee. McIntosh voted last in the committee vote, and there is no guarantee that she would have voted yea if hers had been the 13th and deciding vote.

Along with Councilmember Mary Lehman, the bill's champion on the Council, County Executive Rushern Baker personally worked hard to support the bill. Just Friday he released a press release reaffirming the need for the bill. As Baker is himself a former delegate, the committee warmly received his testimony during last week's hearing and he regularly reached out to leadership to check the bill's status and reinforce it as an executive priority.

The outcome likely would have been different had the delegation vote not been so close. It passed with the minimum 12 votes, with 9 opposed (two were absent). As DC experienced during its attempt to pass a container deposit in the 1980s, the industry opposition successfully couched the issue in racial and socioeconomic terms. They specifically appealed to central and south county residents in their tactics, relying on robocalls to mislead constituents and flood delegate offices with comments, and running ads on predominantly African-American radio stations and in newspapers.

These tactics prompted Delegate Veronica Turner, a co-sponsor of the statewide version of the bag fee, to switch positions, because she believed her constituents were vehemently opposed.

In response, advocates supporting the bill canvassed grocery store parking lots in Turner's district in Oxon Hill, and collected more than 300 signatures over a couple of weekends. They reported that shoppers were extremely supportive of the proposal once they learned that it was intended to reduce litter and create a fund for environmental restoration.

Turner was reportedly open to reversing her position, but she then fell ill and was hospitalized, and has since missed the rest of the legislative session. Her absence prevented a delegation subcommittee from giving the bill a favorable report, leading to the impression that the bill had died in February. (Perhaps this is the vote Gilchrist was remembering.)

Delegate Barbara Frush, who introduced the bill in the House, has faith that the county will eventually have a bag fee. The delegation leadership will change next year as part of the state's redistricting, potentially putting a stronger ally in the chairmanship.

In addition, the county has extensive environmental obligations, including reducing trash in the Anacostia River and dramatically improving stormwater management, and a bag fee would address both. While the county cannot enact a fee this year, other options are still on the table. The problems aren't going to go away on their own.

Sustainability


Prince George's bag fee wins key vote in Maryland House

This morning, delegates that represent Prince George's County in the Maryland House of Delegates voted 12 to 9 in support of HB895, which would let let the county enact a 5¢ fee on disposable plastic and paper bags. This was the most significant hurdle, and the bill now has a very high chance of becoming law.


Reusable bag distributed by Montgomery County. Image via Nancy Navarro.

The bill now moves to the Environmental Matters Committee of the House, and then to the floor of the full House. For local bills like this one, those votes are usually a formality, as the current legislature prefers to support the counties' wishes.

The county's senators must also support the bill, but it passed easily last session and no senators are known to have changed their position.

Opponents of the bill—the manufacturers of plastic bags—have paid a fortune to lobby agsint the bill, with thousands of robocalls misleading citizens and flooding delegate offices.

The County Affairs subcommittee was unable to get 4 of 6 votes, as required by the Maryland constitution, to either recommend for or against the bill (or even to agree on "no recommendation"), but after 3 such votes it was eligible to move up to the full delegation anyway.

The bill's supporters withstood the pressure and protected home rule, allowing the Prince George's County Council to now take up the bag fee this fall. The county council voted 8-0, with one abstention, last month to support this measure. (The abstention was Karen Toles, who has been in the news this week for other reasons.)

The council's authority to enact a fee will take effect in October. Should the statewide bag fee bill also pass, the council will have 6 months to pass the county's program in order to be exempt from the statewide system.

The supporting delegates were sponsor Barbara Frush, Ben Barnes, Dereck Davis, Joseline Pena-Melnyk, Doyle Neimann, Michael Summers, James Hubbard, Kris Valder­rama, Anne Healey, Tawanna Gaines, Justin Ross, and Jolene Ivey. Delegate Ivey attended despite being on bereavement leave following the death of her father last week.

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