Much has been written about the Bag Bill in Washington, DC. I feel fortunate to have been involved, including giving testimony on the Bill as the District representative, and helping devise the implementation scheme while I was still at DDOE. Alan Heymann developed the brilliant “Skip the Bag, Save the River” campaign, which has become a well known symbol in every grocery store, convenience shop and take-out place.
The basics: grocery stores, take-out restaurants and liquor stores now charge a nickel for each plastic bag used for most products. The store keeps a penny for administrative costs and can keep an additional penny if they offer a 5 cent credit when you bring your own bag. The rest of the fee goes to a new Anacostia Restoration Fund. In the 2011 budget, the Mayor has designated funds to be used to help street cleaning – and other intended uses are for stream clean-ups and trash traps along the Anacostia River and its tributaries.
Councilman Tommy Wells initiated the legislation, and Mayor Adrian Fenty signed it into law, mainly because a trash study we conducted at the District Department of the Environment found that plastic bags made up a large proportion of the litter we found in the City. Plastic litter is particularly pernicious because it can entangle so many small animals, and degrades so very, very slowly. Plastic bags also get stuck in everything, clogging up storm drains and machinery in the sewer pump stations and wastewater treatment plants.
Critics came out quickly -the folks that would decry fees and associated expenditures for any public purpose. This was the “bag tax” they charge, just another way for government to fleece the poor, or to make those who are responsible pay for the actions of those who aren’t. On the first point, DDOE and many others have been providing reusable bags for our neighbors and friends of lower income. We will not improve the environment by overburdening the less fortunate.
On the second, the Bag Fee is premised on a fundamental economic principle: externalities. The price of a product includes basic costs – labor, materials, production, overhead, marketing and distribution. We also know that most prices do not cover other costs that are linked to product: the environmental harm associated with extracting resources on one hand, or the costs to clean-up and dispose of the materials at the back end. The District and every other jurisdiction spends significant amounts of money – tax money – on street cleaning, plastics and other solids removal, littering campaigns and then on transporting and disposal to a landfill. These costs – externalities – need to be captured in the price of a good, so the consumer has a real sense of the cost of using that good. The bag fee is seeking to recover some of the significant costs associated with bags at the back end of their use, and collect those funds to help with cleaning up the bags.
The bottom line is that it has worked — even more than any of us imagined. The city estimated that 22 million plastic bags were used per month before the bag fee. In the first month with the fee, the city estimates people used 3.3 million bags – an extraordinary decline of more than 18 million bags, or about 85%! The less good news is that the city is earning far less money that it expected to from the fee. But this is really good news — when faced with the extra cost of a bag, and when given an easy and positive alternative, we are turning away from wasteful, environmentally-fouling bags in enormous numbers.
I say bravo to the effort and I hope other communities take up the cause. Apparently, this type of program will not earn as much money as you might hope, but will decrease the whopping price tag associated with plastic bag pollution on our streets and streams.