It’s Easy Being Green: D.C. Bag Tax Benefits Local River

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More than three months into the District of Columbia’s new tax on all nonreusable bags the numbers are looking good.

The number of plastic bags given out by retail food establishment license holders and Class A and B liquor licensees fell from the 2009 monthly average of 22.5 million to 3 million in January. Not only did the tax reduce waste—to the tune of 19 million plastic bags, or roughly 50 to 80 percent fewer bags—but it raised $150,000 in revenue to clean up the Anacostia River, one of the most polluted rivers in the country.

If this pattern continues for the rest of the year the city will earn $1.8 million off the tax. District officials hope that the tax will generate $10 million over the next four years for environmental projects and reduce plastic bag consumption by 90 percent in five years.

The behavioral economics behind the bag tax are simple. The tax charges shoppers a 5 cent fee for every nonreusable bag (paper or plastic) they get from a store, and this small but annoying sum drives consumers to buy reusable bags and change their habits. High-quality reusable bags have become more widely available as an alternative and the tax revenue goes to the Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Fund, which sorely needs the funds to combat the 20,000 tons of new trash that enter the river each year.

Additionally, the measure bans nonrecyclable plastic carryout bags and requires that if a plastic bag is offered, it must be clearly labeled recyclable. Retail establishments retain 1 cent and those who choose to offer a carryout bag credit program—which would credit customers at least 5 cents for each bag they provide—can retain an additional cent, for a total of 2 cents per bag. The remaining cents go to the cleanup fund for garbage traps, wetlands, and other indigenous plant life to naturally clean out the river; community cleanup events; public conservation and trash education; and the continued distribution of reusable bags.

After the tax was implemented some District residents griped that they didn’t want to have to pay for a bag that was once free. But these bags aren’t free—they cost taxpayers millions every year. These “free” bags take more than 1,000 years to biodegrade in our landfills or as litter in our cities, trees, and waterways. District agencies have to spend millions on trash cleanup for a “free” bag and the District’s Water and Sewage Authority already spends millions on Anacostia River trash removal paid by District residents in their monthly water bill.

Some tout plastic bags as better for the environment than paper because no trees are cut down and paper bags require 4 times more energy to manufacture and 10 times more energy to recycle. It also takes 14 million trees to produce the 10 billion paper grocery bags Americans use annually, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Further, paper bags are bulkier to transport and therefore use more fuel in their delivery to stores, which buy them for 4 to 6 cents per bag compared to plastic bags, which cost under 2 cents a bag.

But it takes 12 million barrels of oil to make the 100 billion plastic bags that Americans use each year. Therefore, taxing both plastic and paper bags like the District is doing addresses the environment consequences of both and puts an end to the age-old question of paper or plastic. Now the answer is simple: switch to reusable.

Read more articles from the "It’s Easy Being Green" series