Wednesday, June 03, 2009

DC Council Approves Tax on Single-Use Shopping Bags

Yesterday the DC Council unanimously approved a 5¢ tax on disposable shopping bags distributed at grocery stores and pharmacies. This was a preliminary vote, and the council will take a final vote on the legislation in a few weeks.

Under the plastic bag legislation, called the Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Act, businesses would keep a penny for each bag sold, and the other four cents would go into a fund to clean up the Anacostia. If businesses offer a discount to consumers who bring reusable bags, they would get to keep two cents for each bag sold.

The legislation, sponsored by council members Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), was fast-tracked even as some cities rethink proposed plastic bag taxes because of the recession.

The Seattle City Council tried to impose a 20-cent fee on plastic and paper, but the proposal must go before voters in August. In New York, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) had inserted a similar 5-cent fee on plastic bags in his budget proposal, but the City Council blocked the measure last month over concerns that it would hurt consumers in tight times.

San Francisco is the only large U.S. city that has banned plastic bags.
Unlike most other cities that have passed (or attempted to pass) legislation on this issue, the DC tax will apply to both plastic and paper bags. Paper is sometimes seen as an improvement over plastic as it is more biodegradable and contains fewer toxins. However, it is not significantly more friendly to the environment as its production contributes to habitat destruction (through tree harvesting) and uses a great deal of energy for a product that will be used once and then discarded.

Making the tax apply to both plastic and paper bags removes at least one objection that opponents of bag taxes from the plastic industry are fond of advancing. It also pushes residents towards using reusable bags rather single-use disposable bags. Many stores now sell cheap reusable shopping bags, and similar bags are available through mail order. These are not the only options, however. Pretty much any cloth bag will do, as long as the size and strength are appropriate for the purchases. While obtaining reusable bags may add some up-front cost, reusable bags generally pay for themselves if grocery stores offer a per-bag discount for customers who use them. (At my local food store, the discount is 5¢ per bag, so the cost of a standard-issue reusable bag is refunded after only 20 uses.) The cost may end up being less than advertised, too, as bags are often distributed for free at special events.

Taxing single-use shopping bags is one step towards cleaning towards reducing the volume of waste and cleaning up trash-strewn waterways. Dedicating the revenue raised through this legislation towards Anacostia River clean-ups should bring some needed attention to a beautiful but neglected river. My hope, though, is that few residents pay the tax in the long run, and most bring their own bags.