Wednesday, July 8, 2009

This Tax Is A Double Bagger

Yesterday, our increasingly disappointing Mayor Adrian Fenty signed into law a new tax that levees 5 cents on each plastic bag given to a customer at a retail checkout. Ostensibly, the purpose of this tax is to encourage people to bring their own reusable bags, with the revenue being used to offset the cost of cleaning up the Anacostia River. Which presumably has been destroyed by plastic bags. Only four cents of this tax will go to the cleanup fund, with the remaining cent going back to the retailer, a recent paradoxical twist on the whole "baggate" saga. How is this different than just having a four-cent per bag tax, if you're going to give one cent back to the retailer? Is this some kind of kick-back for protection services? Avoidance of Federal taxes? I thought about it over and over but could make no sense of it. But moving on, that is only a red herring in the larger idiocy that is the bag tax.

Now, I am no hater of the environment, even the Anacostia River. I am generally fully in favor of spending money on protecting our environment. But throwing together a sloppy revenue-generation scheme such as this is, quite simply, the wrong way to go about it. Below is a list of things that suck about this tax. This list is by no means complete. Rather, these are just some of the blindingly obvious problems with it that came to mind right away. Chances are, in practice, there will be others.

The tax will be difficult for businesses to implement.

The vast majority of plastic bags come from supermarkets. This should be obvious to anyone who eats. Have you seen how many of these things you get each time? Single bags, double bags, bags for wine. By the time you are done at Giant, you've probably got about 20 of them.

That's only a buck in taxes. (Or is it 80 cents?) Most of us probably won't even notice it. But the cashier now has to count every single bag they use, and add in a charge for them. Nothing against cashiers, but these guys are already distracted enough as it is with food stamps, produce lookups, not to mention their cell phones. How the heck is this going to work out? However it does, it's sure not going to speed up the checkout process.

Giant and Safeway want nothing less than something to further slow down checkouts for no reason --- in the big picture, that would cost them money as they would have to hire more checkout people to meet the same demand. I will bet anyone right now that every major supermarket simply continues to do business as usual and pays the tax based on the number of bags they buy, not the number that they "sell" at checkout. The cost will simply become another cost of doing business for them, like any other tax or expense.

In the end, there will be just as many bags going out the door. No benefit to people who choose to use their own bags (or, possibly, the same benefit as currently exists from stores that give a discount for bringing your own bag). Marginally higher prices on everything, for everyone, regardless of how bag-nificent a customer you are.

Result: same number of bags in the world.

Most People Like Getting These Bags

I, and the vast majority of people I know, save supermarket bags and use them for things like cat and dog poop, bathroom and kitchen trash bags, and lunch bags, among 101 possible uses for a cheap, disposable bag. If I find that I actually do have to pay 5 cents a bag at the store, I'll probably just buy shitloads of them at Costco instead and keep a crate of them in my car. I am just not a "reusable bag" sort of person. They get dirty if you spill something, and you need to remember to bring them every time. You need to make sure you have enough of them. And at the end of the day, you still need bags for dog and cat poop.

Result: same number of bags in the world.

People Who Don't Care, Don't Care

The people who are most likely to throw these bags on the sidewalk are probably the same people who are least likely to bring their own bags. Even if they actually did have to pay an extra five cents for a bag at the checkout (which isn't very likely as I've already discussed), they would just pay it without noticing or thinking.

Result: Same number of bags in the world.

And Where Does That Money Go?

The chances of the revenue from this actually going to clean up the Anacostia river, instead of paying for trips to Dubai and fur coats for OTR employees, is probably about zero. Do you really think that this "fund" will go to pick up trash in the river when we can't make the annual budget ends meet? Yeah, right.

Result: Anacostia River Remains Craptastic.

I am sure there are other reasons why this tax is stupid that I haven't even thought of. But the bottom line is, on the slim chance that this tax even hits the consumer at the per-bag level, very few people are likely to change their most basic shopping habits over a nickel a bag. Some really cheap people like myself will probably just buy their own bags in bulk for the 1/100th of a cent they actually cost, but most others will just pay the tax, probably amounting to a total of 50 bucks a year at most.

Please, just raise our damn income taxes if you need more money instead of this circus-game tax that will probably cost more to implement than it will raise. Since that's how it's going to work out in the end. And at least an income tax is not regressive and we can talk about it for what it is.

Update, July 10: Seeing as I got in Express Blog Log today, I wanted to comment on this tax in comparison to bag taxes implemented elsewhere. I would like to note that information about the effect of the bag taxes is very difficult to find in mainstream media or from independent sources. The results that have been published about Ireland's tax are only the positive effects. The negative effects are from articles typically published by the petroleum industry.

While I am naturally mistrustful of these figures if the only source I can find is the petroleoum industry, I am equally mistrustful of the fact that there is NO PUBLISHED REPORT from a truly objective source that documents the negative effects of the bag taxes, namely, increase in other plastic use, and increase in paper bag use, which are effects that one would obviously expect to see.

So, while I think the negative figures must be taken with a grain of salt, it is obvious that there would be consequences and it is highly concerning that there has been no "legitimate" study done of the effects of these taxes. Or, perhaps, could it be that the governments don't want people to know the true effects of these taxes since they like the revenue?

Ireland: 33 cent tax on plastic bags only. Result: 90% drop in grocery store plastic bag consumption. 400% increase in sales of other heavier plastic bags from stores (e.g. trash bags). Overall amount of plastic resin used in Ireland increased 10%. Unable to find information on obvious increase in use of paper bags from stores.

San Francisco: 17 cent tax on plastic bags only. Result: all stores switched to paper bags or heavy plastic bags marked as "reusable."

Comaprison to DC Tax:

1) The DC tax is 5 cents per bag, less than 1/3 of the San Francisco tax and 1/6th of the Ireland tax. The cost to consumers is not great enough to drive any change in shopping habits.

2) Taxing both paper and plastic bags. Paper bags are generally understood to cause more enviromental harm because of the much greater resources required to produce them, though they are biodegradble, unlike plastic bags. In San Francisco, the tax has caused stores to largely switch to paper bags, meaning there is questionable overall benefit to the environment. In Ireland, adoption of reusable bags seems much higher than in San Francisco, but has resulted in a dramatic increase in purchase of other bags at stores, typically trash bin liners, resulting actually in an increase in plastic consumption.


Gareth said...

The worst tragedy is that reducing our use of plastic bags is pointless. Plastic bags represent less than a 1/10 of 1 percent of all petroleum based plastics in this country.

Reduction of plastic bag usage will have no appreciable effect on the environment, our petroleum consumption, or the problem of litter.

All it serves to do is give people a big warm fuzzy feeling by deluding them into thinking they are being "green".

As a bonus: Plastic bags can be recycled later and even converted fully back into burnable fuel. It's not as though their manufacture results in wasted petroleum.

In summary, you would be more green recycling just 1 milk jug than you would by recycling 1000 plastic bags.

FoggyDew said...

There is another possibility: People shop elsewehre. Those who can may go across the river into Virginia or into Maryland to do their shopping and plastic bags sit unused all over the District. Not only does D.C. get no bag tax, it also loses out on the tax revenue from the sale. So it's a double whammy.

Not saying this is going to happen, but it could.

Jamie said...

@Gareth: I didn't even know that side of it. Makes the tax even sillier.

@FoggyDew: I really doubt that. The cost of the tax as a fraction of what you're already spending is tiny. Even on a full-on grocery shopping trip, we're talking about a dollar, max.

Drive to Virginia or Maryland to save a dollar on a $150 shopping trip? You must be kidding. I already spend thousands of dollars MORE per year to live in DC in the form of income taxes, largely for the convenience of not commuting in awful traffic and being able to shop close to home. So why would I throw away that benefit for a measly buck.

Now I will go there for Costco. But if there was one in DC, I'd go to that one instead.

Malnurtured Snay said...

I've been trying to figure out how we'd implement this at the Bookstore, and for the life of me, I just can't figure it out. Maybe we'd just charge a token five-cent fee. Seems like something that would be easily forgotten.

Anonymous said...

Sir - I noticed that the Express paper gave a microphone to your uninformed opinion on the bag fee. If you are genuinely interested in efforts to clean the Anacostia River you might want to contact councilmember Wells' staff, who did extensive research on plastic bag efforts the world over and their environmental and fiscal implications (they are quite effective if well-designed), and devised the DC bag legislation with much careful thought. Those good folks will also be happy to let you know about other work that they have been doing in conjunction with EPA Region 3, which permits our stormwater discharges under the Clean Water Act, to help advise them on how best to leverage DC's existing regulatory authority to reduce stormwater pollution, the largest sorce of pollution to the Anacostia. Perhaps you might also want to contact the Anacostia Watershed Toxics Alliance for information (i.e. not mere opinion) on the chemical effect that the breakdown of plastic bags has on water quality, or the Anacostia Riverkeeper whose massive long-term trash survey revealed an enormous percentage of the trash in the Anacostia consists of plastic bags. Perhaps you might want to do some looking into what Maryland and Virginia lawmakers are doing to help complement and not undermine this bag fee, in anticipation of the glib "just shop somewhere else" rejoinder. Perhaps as an interesting "my life in DC" blog entry, you might want to take a walk down to the Anacostia and talk to a few of the people who fish there to supplement their groceries, or to observe blue herons walking across solid islands of trash. Finally, you might also be interested in investigating how much DC taxpayer money already goes to cleaning up this trash and all the problems associated with it. I'd be interested to see if you update this blog with some more informed thoughts for your loyal readers. Kindly, a friend of the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers

Jamie said...

@Anonymous, perhaps you didn't read my post, at all?

All your comments have to do with the problems in the Anacostia. I said nothing about that, in fact, I said I am in favor of spending money on the environment. The point of my post is that I believe the tax is very unlikely to change the number of plastic bags that go into the trash.

Further, you seem to think that I am one of the "shop somewhere else" people. In fact, if you read my response to FoggyDew's comment, you would see that quite the opposite, I don't think that is a problem at all, nor did I even mention it in my post. I think the tax is stupid, but not for that reason.

You have not actually responded to any of the criticisms that I made of this tax. Is this perhaps, simply, a form response you have posted elsewhere?

The next time you comment on a blog post, I suggest two things.

1) Don't be anonymous, because it gives you no credibility

2) Read the post before you comment on it.

Anonymous said...

Sorry if you think my anonymity makes me uncredible, but I don't care to be abused publicly for what I think. If I have valid points it shouldn't matter a bit. Actually, I did read your blog and I didn't feel the need to respond to any of your comments because they are so obviously uninformed. I don't have time to give you the education about this issue that you should have gotten yourself before you broadcast your opinion. That is why I listed a broad variety of things you could do to educate yourself on how the bag fee is designed to work and how it fits in the larger Anacostia issues. That you didn't mention the Anacostia is meaningless - my point is that is specifically designed as part of the larger effort to clean the Anacostia, so if you aren't informed about that you won't understand the bag fee. Kindly, Anonymous

Jamie said...

So: you are criticizing my post, yet you aren't actually going to present a single argument against a single one of my "uninformed" points?

'nuff said.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I am criticizing your post without making counter arguments. I don't understand how "'nuff said" is a valid point about anything.

Jamie said...

Since your argument is "you're wrong but I can't explain why," then I wouldn't expect you to. If you can't refute my points, then why are you here?

Anonymous said...

What a freaking waste of time this is turning out to be. I didn't say I can't explain why you're wrong, I said that I didn't have time and that you should look into this issue yourself because it would doubtlessly alter your view if you knew more about it. I'm not her to correct you or educate you - that's your own damn job. Silly me for thinking you are actually interested in knowledge and truth.

Jamie said...

Well, at least we agree that our conversation is a waste of time.

If you want to refute my points I am happy to engage, and even be convinced to the contrary if you can give me a rational argument or evidence. But you need to give me a lot more than just saying "you're wrong because I said so." That doesn't work when you're 12 years old and it definitely doesn't work when debating a serious issue as adults.

Jamie said...

NOTE: I have updated the original post with some commentary about this tax compared to San Francisco's and Irelands.

Anonymous said...

Jaime: please understand that this is, in fact, not a debate and never was. You posted your opinion, and I pointed out that it appears to be an uninformed opinion. That is not the same as saying "you're wrong because I said so." I'm suggesting things you might want to look into to better inform your opinion, because I find it extremely discouraging when I and many others have worked year after year to fix bad policies that lead to river pollution here -- and then some pipsqueak with a bullhorn dismisses one of our accomplishments as "stupid." To clarify, it is a huge accomplishment to pass any environmental protection legislation anywhere much less in the DC Council, but I'm not claiming that this approach is guaranteed to solve the problem of bags in the river and I'm not claiming it addresses the larger petroleum problem. It's just one of many efforts that have been designed by well-intentioned and informed people to get us closer to a river that isn't poisonous to humans and aquatic life.

Jamie said...

I'm sorry that you characterize people who don't share your opionion as "pipsqueaks with bullhorns." I'm a thinking person and I don't think that this tax will be effective towards your goals for the reasons I have outline. As I have stated in my original posting and in my comments, I share your goals.

I think this legislation will be ineffective. Your reaction to my post has had only to do with the need to clean up the Anacostia. I agree with that goal.

However, I have stated several reasons, as well as an analysis of the outcome of similar taxes which actually had a lot more teeth than the DC tax, which should make it pretty clear why I don't think this tax will be useful.

On what am I uninformed? I wrote about the effectiveness of a tax. You haven't refuted what I wrote, nor have you said anything about that. In fact it appears that you are unformed, because you don't seem aware that the taxes that have been instituted elsewhere may actually have resulted in greater petroleum consumption.

Your kneejerk reaction to my post is exactly the problem. People in DC like to make laws without thinking or understanding how they will work, if they will work, and what unintended consequences they may have.

If you would like to direct me to any specific research or evidence that contradicts what I have written here I would be more than happy to read it and reconsider my opinion. But you have not even tried to do that - rather you have just kept shouting that I am wrong and uninformed.

Well inform me. I've given a lot to think about here and you've given me nothing but ad hominem attacks. Good luck with achieving your goals of a clean Anacostia River. I share them, and I would be very much in favor of laws or policies that actually might help achieve that goal. But I will remain opposed to laws that simply make people feel good while potentially even doing harm.

kob said...

You are right about the lack of data.

I submitted an FOIA request to the DC Council last week requesting any supporting documents, impact statements, tax revenue estimates, etc.

My previous notes to the staff of the DC councilman who helped lead it as well as the DC Council weren't responded to.

A public hearing was held on this early this year but the only people who were really aware of this hearing, it seemed, were environmental groups, which of course supported the bag tax.

I'm all for the environment. But I oppose dishonest government.

I encourage others to also write the DC Council to ask them to produce some documentation about this. Let's get the fact out there and publish them.

Jamie said...

@kob - this is exactly why I am so skeptical of this tax. Despite the fact that a similar tax has been implemented elsewhere for some time, and the tax is actually a much higher cost per-bag to the consumer (which means the chances of people changing their habits is a lot more elsewhere), there is very little data available online about the effects. Where are:

1) Impact studies of consumer habits post-tax
2) Sales data on consumer plastic & paper bags before & after the taxes

Wouldn't you think that this information would be extremely valuable to anyone who ACTUALLY wants to know how this tax will impact the environment in the big picture?

Both of those figures should be easy to obtain. I could spend 15 minutes in a supermarket in San Francisco and Ireland and have a pretty good idea about #1, and the data from #2 should be available.

Yet we just went ahead and passed this tax (and at a low enough per-bag rate that I doubt anyone will even care) without any concept of what might happen, and without any discussion. And just because I oppose this, people like Anonymous get all up in arms and think I hate the environment. Actually, I hate deception and lies.

Where is this information? Why don't environmental groups (such as my anonymous nemesis) care about the negative effects of this tax?

It just makes me feel like it's all about money. In this case, because the revenue has been earmarked for the Anacostia, it makes me think that the people who want to clean up the Anacostia specifically care more about their backyard than about the environment as a whole. Since based on what information I could find about the result of the taxes elsewhere, it could very well result in overall harm to the environment as people must buy more plastic bags, and heavier ones, to use where they once used the supermarket bags, or it will have no effect on the habits of consumers since the tax is pretty low.

Mari said...

I tend to delete anonymous comments, so most of this conversation wouldn't even occur. But your blog, your rules.
A question I have on how this damned thing is supposed to work, what about recycled bags that customers bring in? A small store I go to barely bothers to buy plastic bags because customers bring in paper and plastic bags they'd brought in from elsewhere. Sort of like take a penny, leave a penny, except with bags.

Julie Lawson said...

It's hard to outline a thoughtful response to a criticism as measured as "stupid" and "sucks." But I'll try. I'm one of those people who dedicated countless hours trying to get this passed, and I feel this is a wonderful step for the city.

First, I recommend you get your hands on the DDOE report about the trash inventory in the Anacostia and its tributaries. 47% of the trash in Watts Branch, according to visual counts by the researchers, is single-use plastic bags. Their independent recommendation is that demand for the bags must be reduced, and they suggested a fee as the best way to do this.

There isn't a lot of research about the effects of fees like this because there aren't a lot of places doing it, and those that are haven't been doing it that long.

However, when Ikea implemented a 5-cent fee on plastic bags a year or so ago, they expected demand to drop by half. Instead, it dropped by over 90 percent, so they just stopped carrying single-use bags all together.

The DC bill includes paper bags for two reasons: the goal of the bill is to get people to switch to reusables; and paper bags cost the retailers more than plastic-film bags. On the latter point, if the retailers had to buy tons more paper bags, they have to recoup that cost somewhere--add it to the cost of the food. If most people bring reusables, they don't have to buy as many bags of either material, and the retailer saves money. See Aldi and Sav-A-Lot stores in Prince George's County, where food costs as much as 30% less than it does at a neighboring Giant.

The proceeds of the fee go into a dedicated fund, to be managed by the DDOE. The bill specifies that the fund will pay for, in order, education about the new fee and free bags for needy residents, trash traps and storm drain screens, then other cleanup methods. The DC Council knows how often money is mishandled in this city, so they put limits on what it can be used for. The estimated annual yield from the fee has already been publicly stated: $3.5 million.

Perhaps the hearing wasn't well advertised. But how many hearings are? The only ones I know about are the ones about issues I work on.

If you're going to buy single-use plastic bags in bulk, you still have to remember to bring them to the store with you. So I fail to see how you're beating the system?

@Gareth: Can you please provide a source for your claim that bags can be turned into burnable fuel? The vast majority of plastic bags returned for recycling go to Trex, the company that makes plastic lumber. I'm sure, also, that you know how the market for recyclables has collapsed, and that cities are now paying to warehouse recyclable materials until it rebounds. Also, this bill isn't about reducing petroleum use--it's about reducing litter. Hence, "Anacostia River *Cleanup* and *Protection* Act."

A couple of personal notes:
- I have two dogs, and I don't have a yard. So I go through a lot of bags. I haven't taken single-use bags from a store in two years, though. Instead, I use bread bags, bagel bags, produce bags, newspaper bags, cereal bags, etc. I also try to double up--if the dogs both poop on a walk, both poops go in one bag. A change like this just takes some creativity.

- I personally stood outside a Ward 8 grocery store to talk to shoppers about the bill. It was remarkably popular even with what most people would consider a needy population. Lots of people said they supported it. While every last one of them had a cart full of single-use bags, they said they were happy to make the switch, and that the river needs so much help they were happy to pay a nickel each time they forgot. A lot of them also asked about upcoming cleanup events.

One last note: These single-use plastic bags have only existed for about 20 years. People still managed to carry their groceries, take out their trash, pick up dog poop and clean litterboxes, and carry their lunches.

Jamie said...

@rallycap, thank you for your comments. I sometimes use words like "stupid" and "suck" because I they are simple and make a point. My blog isn't a newspaper. I don't want it to read like one.

Why is information about the effects of this tax hard to come by? It has been implemented in San Francisco for more than two years. It is also three times as expensive per bag and ought to have a much bigger impact on people's habits.

When I googled "san francisco bag ban" the second result was an NPR story with this quote:

"In the U.S., the ban has had a few unintended consequences in the marketplace. North of San Francisco in the small town of Oroville, one manufacturer of plastic bags actually got a boost in business."

Carrying around disposable bags is preferable to reusable bags for many reasons. They take up much less space. You can easily carry many more than you would ever need. I can leave them in my car all the time and just grab a stack before I go in the store. You don't need to wash them. And like I said, I still use them for lots of other things. Cereal bags don't make very good trash bags, apart from the fact that I would only generate about one every two months. And newspaper bags? What kind of environmentalist actually gets print newspapers? How 1990 of you.

The Ikea story you mention seems to be from Canada. It is interesting, but I suspect that American consumers are a lot different than those in other countries. I think they may even like trains in Canada.

At the end of the day, I realize that if the supermarket bags were not available, of course people would do something different.

But I still believe that when push comes to shove, adding 80 cents to the cost of your $150 shopping trip, or five cents to the cost of your six-pack, won't really be enough to change the typical American consumer's shopping habits, and beyond that there is already ample evidence that when you take away that source of a useful product that most people already "recycle" in some way, it will have to be replaced with something else.

Because of this I think it's irresponsible to implement a tax like this without, apparently, any kind of analysis of the results of the ones that have already been implemented. It shouldn't be that hard to do that. Like I said, a trip to a supermarket in San Francisco, or a telephone survey of people there, would tell you a lot. These things have not been done. If there is good information about the total effects of these taxes, then it's pretty well hidden from people like me who are interested in it.

I really do appreciate the dialog. Your comments are much more thoughtful than Anon's and at least provide some other information that I was not aware of. But I still feel very much that the jury is still out on whether there's even a net positive to the environment to such a tax. It should be a priority to do the basic research needed to find out what the overall effect has been in other places it's been implemented.

kob said...

Here is some data on the impact on the legislation. It's from a District report prepared by the finance department. I just recently learned of this link, thanks to some help from a poster on the Adams Morgan list.

In response to rallycap -- IMHO, the arguments for supporting this plastic bag tax have not been put to the test, but they will be once the tax goes live. The real debate hasn't started.

I have the greatest respect for some of the environmental organizations that have pitched this. However, I think the legislation they endorsed was poorly thought out.

I would have been happier to have seen a few things in the bill.

1. A mandatory review point with a clear criteria assessing the impact of the new tax.

2. Or, better yet, a sunset provision that requires reaffirmation by the council, forcing a reassessment of the tax.

3. A periodic fiscal report that accounts for the spending and also demonstrates the impact of the clean-up, and assures that new monies (not reclassified dollars) are actually being spent to clean up the river.

This legislation was half-baked. What we now have is a permanent tax that remains whether it accomplishes anything or not. It will never go away and, I suspect, neither will the bags.

Julie Lawson said...

Thanks for the dialogue, Jamie. The Ikea example is from right here. Go to College Park--they'll ask you to buy a 99-cent blue bag or you can roll your cart out and load up your car, but you can't get a plastic bag.

I vehemently disagree with your assertion that reusables are harder to carry. When I did use plastic bags, they expanded and filled up a small closet. My 11 reusables all fit inside each other and sit nicely on a shelf. Yes, I drive to the grocery store--I live and work downtown and don't have a good store in walking distance in between. But I also have a reusable bag that rolls up and fits in my purse that I use for those on-my-way home purchases, if I need a bag at all. It could easily hold two gallons of milk, but rolled up is about the size of an egg roll. There are dozens of other tiny options.

I don't think getting the paper on Sunday makes me any less of an environmentalist, but believe what you wish. I use both the yellow bag and the pack the coupons come in for the dogs. Cereal bags are certainly not my preference, but they do work for scooping when I don't have anything else.

San Francisco is a different situation. It's a ban, not a fee. Right now California doesn't allow any municipalities to levy a fee on bags, so all their bag legislation involves bans. SF only applied the ban on grocery stores that earn more than $2 million annually. The DC fee applies to every store that sells food, from your corner markets to liquor stores to Staples to CVS to Giant. I believe it was changed to exempt restaurants (ie, doggie bags).

Also, there was some research done. Aldi and Sav-A-Lot, both in PG County, charge for bags. Councilmember Wells's staff bought groceries at Aldi, and at Giant in the same neighborhood. The total cost, as I mentioned before, was 30 percent less. I have a hunch that Aldi has other business practices that shave expenses from their overhead, but the researchers said there were a ton of DC plates there, and everyone, young, old, poor and not poor, was carrying their reusable bags.

The quintessential example of what this bill is trying to put an end to is the person who goes to 7-Eleven to buy chips and a drink. The chips automatically go in a bag. The person goes outside, strips off the bag, and drops it on the ground, because they don't need it. If the cashier tells them it costs 5 cents for the bag, they won't take it. On the flip side, if someone is going to go out of their way to avoid the fee (going to Virginia or Maryland, buying a ton of plastic bags of their own), they've already put thought into it. As Councilmember Wells said during that hearing, "it's not about trying to get into your pocket, it's about trying to get into your head."

I concur that 5 cents might not be enough--lots of enviro groups wish it were higher. But it might be. It's worth a try. If the bill had proposed a 25-cent fee, the hollering about a "tax on the poor" could have gotten traction and we wouldn't know if it worked or not.

Finally, I'm going to save you some cash. There's no need to buy a ton of bags. The fee doesn't go into effect until January. You can stock up now at no apparent cost and bring those plastic bags back forever and ever until they are holey and falling apart, and never pay the fee. But I think you might find a few cleverly designed reusables will last longer and do the same thing for you. (And I've never washed mine--just a spot scrub if some meat juice gets on them. Not much risk of dirt from carrying food from the car to the house.)

Jamie said...

@kob - great information.

In the document they basically admit they don't have any idea how this will be adopted and what the outcome will be. Your suggestions of a better way to have implemented this make a lot of sense given that.

IKEA is mentioned specifically as the only similar "tax." It doesn't mention that the store was in Canada, nor does it mention exactly how Ikea chose to implement this fee. Did thye offer an alternative to the bags, e.g. boxes like Costco? What items typically were being bagged at IKEA? Meaning - in the past, they probably gave you a single bag for each breadbox sized item you bought.

Costco does not offer plastic bags, nor have they ever. But you don't really need them, because you purchase smaller numbers of larger items, rather than large numbers of small items.

My point is, IKEA is a lot more like Costco than Giant. You can live without a bag for big things. In fact you don't really even want one, but you just took one anyway because they gave one to you. But you can't live without bags for groceries.

I don't see a lot of people bringing canvas shopping bags to Ikea. Nor would they be particularly useful for bringing home your Djangaaard coffee table.

Julie Lawson said...


Thanks for your concerns. The actual mechanics of the fee collection and administration have been left to OTR. I'm among the first to admit that that leaves a lot of room for problems. But the environmental groups that supported this bill very much want it to succeed. I know my organization, the Surfrider Foundation, will be watching.

The CFO's report said that bag use is expected to drop by 90% by 2013, which would essentially leave the fund empty. So the bill includes two amendments--a special license plate (from which $20 additional registration fees would go to the fund) and a checkoff box on income tax forms. This is modeled from a program in Maryland that funds the Chesapeake Bay Trust.

If the fee isn't working--if bags are still clogging the trash traps, killing birds, and getting caught in trees and grasses--we'll know because the EPA will start fining the bejeezus out of the city for violating Total Maximum Daily Loads. There are lots of people watching and waiting for a good result here.

I disagree that this legislation is half-baked--I believe it was very well thought out and addresses many of the possible arguments against it, and I expect it will be effective. I believe the industry opponents recognized this, and that's why their response was so tepid compared to campaigns in other cities. Your arguments about its failings are limited to the execution of the fiscal side of it--so let's stay on top of the management and follow-through so the environmental aspects can be successful.

Julie Lawson said...


re: Ikea. They sell light bulbs, batteries, desk lamps, picture frames, vases, dishes, etc. Plenty of stuff that needs a bag. I actually do bring a canvas bag (or three) with me. But I admit I'm not normal. :) And as I mentioned, they have big blue bags for sale for 99 cents. And it's not just in Canada.

Ikea is the primary example given because it has a clear before and after. Aldi and Sav-A-Lot have been charging for bags for a long time.

kob said...


You did not imply this but I want to be clear about it, since you used the term "industry opponent"

I am not an industry opponent. I have nothing to do with the plastic bag industry, chemical industry, oil industry or any other remotely connected to sale or distribution of plastic bags, except the ones I carry my food home in.

My response isn't tepid; it will be pointed. I've filed an FOIA to try to learn as much as I can about the basis of this approval and will publish that information and make it accessible.

Julie Lawson said...


I absolutely wasn't implying that you represent the vested industries. I was only saying that the plastics industry has a history of very strong opposition campaigns, and we were all steeled to face it--and nothing happened.

I look forward to seeing what you find out.

Jamie said...

@rallycap - I understand a lot better where this is coming from, but I still stand by my initial criticisms in that the results of the bill (in terms of reduction of overall disposable bag use) may leave a lot to be desired.

My example of the newspaper was half joking. By half I mean I don't think your a bad person for getting one. But at the same time, print newspaper distribution is only going down. Most people don't get one. I don't. It's not the bag-a-day source it use to be.

Leaving us with a need for bags. I use easily 30 a week. I save almost every one I bring home (I stuff them in a box under my counter) and use almost every one. Two dog craps a day (sometimes more on a bad day). Four or five litter box scoops a week. A few for bathroom and other little trash cans. A few for other nasty trash (e.g. dead birds, oily rags, raw meat/bones, anything that stinks or is really messy and should be tied up in the trash).

I don't even have kids. And I think my use of them is pretty typical. So I'll either buy just as many myself, or pay the nickel if I forgot to bring some with me, because I still need the bags.

So basically, if the problem of bags in the Anacostia is coming from liquor and convenience stores and not grocery stores, which probably generate far more overall (though maybe a lot less of them end up in the river), then this seems a bit like cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Couldn't that problem be dealt with in some other way, than a universal tax that will create inconvenience for those who aren't part of the problem, and possibly not even have much effect on overall bag use?

By the way. It's possible that the petroleum industry doesn't care about this bill because they've realized it doesn't have much effect on overall petroleum use in bag manufacture. It seems to have gone up in Ireland, post-ban. That fact was from the petroleum industry, but nobody refuted it.

Julie Lawson said...


If I may--bear with me--I challenge you to see if you can reduce your use of plastic bags. Just for a week. This can mean changing a habit, or finding a different kind of container other than a grocery bag. I'm honestly curious about this 30-bags-a-week tally. Our lifestyles don't sound all that different and I simply can't fathom needing that many bags.

For example: I have little trash cans all over my house, but since most of the stuff in there is tissues and dog hair, it's dry, and I don't need liners. When they are full, I dump the contents in a bigger can.

Again, it's not the people who are reusing them that we're concerned about as much as the people who don't think twice about what that bag is for and where it ends up. I could argue that you're still only getting two uses out of those bags, and that you're sealing otherwise highly degradable substances inside a material that essentially exists forever, but that's tangential.

It is possible that there is a better way to control litter. But no one has suggested one. We've been recycling for years and it's just gotten worse. An outright ban doesn't raise money to clean up the river.

And it wasn't the petroleum industry, per se, but the bag manufacturers. But maybe they don't mind, because maybe their Maryland and Virginia orders will just go up. ;)

Jamie said...

I am sure I could use fewer bags. But I don't want to. It would probably do more good for the environment for me to turn the temperature down one degree in the winter for one week, than for me to eliminate a couple hundred bags per year from my use. And at the end of the day, the cost in terms of lifestyle would be a lot greater.

That's the essence of my premise. In the world of tradeoffs, bags are a tiny fraction of both petroleum use and landfill volume. But eliminating them would be pretty unpleasant. I don't want to smell cat crap or anything else un-wrapped up in my trash. Nor do I want to re-use bathroom trash bags. I don't know what goes in your bathroom trash, but q-tips, tampons and that sort of thing are NOT going to be put in a liner-free can and I'm certainly not going to reuse that bag.

Yeah, I could reduce them, but I don't want to, and in the grand scheme of habits that people could change to help the environment, this one has a high personal cost, and a negligible positive impact. It's not worth it.

As far as sealing off those materials, almost nothing degrades in a landfill anyway. (Another interesting fact I learned in the course of researching this...)

How is it that your tissues are dry by the way... if it ended up being dry after use I wouldn't have needed one :)

One other thought I had is, are liquor sales required to be bagged in DC? I tried once not long ago to walk out of a store with a 6-pack unbagged and they seemed uncomfortable about it, enough so that I just said fine, give me one of those damn black bags.

If this is true, I really don't see a lot of your average single and 6-pack buyers bringing their own bags. Ummm... no. They will pay the 5 cents if they legally have to.

And if they don't, well, that's going to be an interesting cultural phenomenon. Is this the end of the brown-bagged 24 ounce can? How on earth are we going to drink our malt liquor on the sidewalk without being busted (because it's so discreet to drink out of a paper bag)? Out of a canvas bag? Have people THOUGHT about what this is going to mean for the world of street drinkers?

Jamie said...

Another tidbit I discovered. The internets say that the amount of petroleum needed to make one bag is enough to move your car either 11 or 115 meters. Of course there is no source for either figure but both are regurgitated by various enviro organizations, so I expect the true value is less oil than either. Especially considering that supermarket bags have gotten thinner and thinner over the years.

Anyway, that means that throwing away 20 bags a week for a year is the equivalent of 7 or 74 miles driven in a car. I expect the true value is probably 7 or less.

Considering the average person drives 10,000 or so miles per year, and burns a ton of fuel heating their home, I'm sticking with my "not exactly a major environmental impact" position on throwing away 20 plastic bags a week, be it 0.7 or 7 or 74.

Julie Lawson said...

But most every environmental change at the consumer level is small. It's like going on a diet--"they" recommend making incremental changes over the long term, rather than trying to swap junk food for veggies cold turkey. A person brings reusable bags, maybe next time they choose a product with less packaging. Or, even more basic, they don't throw trash on the ground. They start recycling paper today; next week they print on both sides.

If one medium-sized city can get together and reduce the amount of trash in its environment, that's an impact.

Again, this has little to do with petroleum use and a lot to do with litter.

But, as I said, the fact that it's a fee, and not a ban, makes it a choice. If you feel that the bag is so integral in your life that you will pay five cents for it, that's up to you. Your choice helps remove trash from the river. If I choose to bring bags, that's my prerogative too. And I don't think I should have to subsidize your bags and any subsequent trash in the cost of my food like I do now.

BTW, the black bags from liquor stores have been outright banned. Those aren't recyclable, period. That's according to the American Chemistry Council itself.

kob said...

Here's the bottom line: DC is essentially a test case on this tax.

The proponents have the tax now have what they want. The rest of us -- who may have issues/questions -- are now along for the ride.

Would the environmental advocates who supported this bill back an amendment that required a review of this tax after, say, a two year period? Something that fully discloses the impact of this tax?

Alex said...

I think the one reasonable and important point in this post is the possibility that the tax might actually not be used for its stated purpose.

Otherwise, it's a five cent tax. Five cents! You'll actually drive to Costco (thus spending money on gas and gas taxes) and buy bags to avoid paying five cents? Seriously?

Jamie said...

@Alex. It's not as if I would drive to costco to buy one bag per trip to costco to save five cents. You can buy more than one at a time, you know. And I go to costco anyway.

No, I would I buy a 500-pack of bags at costco (when I am there anyway) and keep them in my car, as I said.

The other point is that having the cashier count bags and charge for them takes time. If I bring in my own bags, not only do I avoid the surcharge of maybe a buck on every grocery trip, I don't have to wait while the cashier adds them all up.