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Officials rejoice over low 5-cent bag fee revenue

Thursday - 10/4/2012, 1:39pm  ET

The number of plastic bags found along the Anacostia River has decreased since Washington D.C. enacted a 5-cent disposable bag fee in January 2010. (Courtesy of Anacostia Watershed Society)
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Stephanie Steinberg,

WASHINGTON - Shreds of dirty plastic bags wedged between rocks and wrapped around tree trunks once littered the banks of the Anacostia River.

But the environmental hazards have nearly disappeared since Washington, D.C. implemented a disposable bag fee - charging shoppers 5 cents extra for paper or plastic - two years ago, city officials and environmental experts say.

"We're finding a lot fewer bags actually out in the environment, especially in the tributaries leading into the Anacostia River," says Julie Lawson, communications and campaigns manager for the Anacostia Watershed Society.

The 8.7-mile river spans from Prince George's County in Maryland to the Potomac River in D.C. Before the District implemented the bag fee in January 2010, about 20,000 tons of trash entered the Anacostia River each year. Half of the debris was plastic bags, Lawson says.

Since the fee went into effect, the number of plastic bags weighing down shoppers' arms and dug out of the brush has drastically decreased. In an OpinionWorks survey of 600 residents, 75 percent reported they had reduced their plastic bag usage.

From January 2010 to July 2012, the fee has generated nearly $5 million for the Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Fund, according to the District Office of the Chief Financial Officer.

The fund pays for river restoration, trash traps that catch debris before it hits the Anacostia, anti-litter education for students and the community and the RiverSmart Homes project, which offers incentives for D.C. residents to remove stormwater pollution from their properties.

When D.C. passed the law sponsored by Councilmember Tommy Wells, D-Ward 6, and became the first major city to implement a 5-cent bag fee, studies estimated the surcharge would generate about $4 million a year.

In reality, the fee has generated about half that amount, or $2 million a year, which is actually a good thing, says Jeffrey Seltzer, District Department of the Environment associate director for stormwater management.

"The intent of the law wasn't to generate revenue. The intent of the law was to change behavior," he says. "The less revenue we generate, that means the more effective the law is and the less disposable bags people are using. If we were to generate zero revenue, the law would be a complete success."

With each bag sold, 4 cents go toward the clean-up fund, and businesses keep the remaining cent. Seltzer says store owners have expressed "very little" opposition to the law.

In the same OpinionWorks survey of 51 stores in D.C., including liquor and grocery stores, restaurants and coffee shops, more than 85 percent reported a neutral or positive impact from the fee. A reduction in litter surrounding the store was one of the benefits.

Safeway spokesperson Craig Muckle says fewer people have asked for bags at the 14 Safeways in the District. As a result, the grocery store has benefited by ordering fewer bags and saving money on a once line-item cost.

The bag battle continues

Though Anacostia river cleanup crews have seen a significant decrease in the number of plastic bags, Lawson says the environmental battle is not over.

The main reason is that half the Anacostia watershed is in Prince George's County, which does not have a disposable bag fee, Lawson says.

"The bags that are still being used in Prince George's County are still making their way into the river, even in the D.C. part," she says.

Efforts to implement a bag tax in Prince George's have been difficult. Though county officials have expressed support for a bag fee, they do not have the authority to enact one without approval from voters or the Maryland General Assembly. When presented to the assembly for approval in March, the House Environmental Matters Committee vetoed the measure by one vote.

Montgomery County was more successful. The county implemented a 5-cent bag fee in January for all retail establishments, with the exception of paper bags given to customers at restaurants and cafes.

From January to July, the tax has generated about $1.25 million from more than 4.6 million bags, according to the Montgomery County Department of Finance.

Montgomery County spokeswoman Bonnie Ayers says the county expects to collect more than $2.1 million from 53.6 million bags in the first year of the program. All of the revenue goes toward the county's Water Quality Protection Fund, which provides upgrades for stormwater facilities that capture litter and pollutants before they flow into waterways.

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