August 25, 2011 at 4:00 pm EDT | by Mark Lee
D.C. bag tax: Paper, plastic or puffery?

When the D.C Bag Tax went into effect on Jan. 1, 2010, the Wall Street Journal quoted the owner of Pleasure Place wondering if the adult toy store would be required to charge for paper or plastic bags as a result of selling edible body frosting.

Being asked by a department store clerk if a bag is desired for a stack of purchased clothing due to a Godiva Chocolatier located somewhere within the sprawling building causes most people to opt for a pose this side of a shoplifter or looter.

But the plastic bags at grocery stores available to package fruit, vegetables, nuts, candies, bakery goods, frozen foods or flowers are exempt. Restaurant “doggie bags” are free – as long as they are paper. Same for the bags at fast casual restaurants and take-out shops as long as there are tables and chairs. The list goes on.

As a government “revenue enhancer” the D.C. Bag Tax is one of the most financially inconsequential new levies imposed – costing less than 20 bucks a year for a resident or household using one bag a day or seven bags a week at a cost of only five cents a bag. Compared to the city’s high income, sales and restaurant/bar sales tax rates, we’re talkin’ chump change.

As a result, the intense public controversy prior to the law’s passage two summers ago has died down.

D.C. remains the only major city to tax paper and plastic bags. Proponents of the law assumed other locales would soon follow suit. But attempts at similar mandates – either by legislative action or voter initiative – have proven hugely unpopular and almost universally unsuccessful.

When gay Virginia House of Delegates member Adam Ebbin (D) introduced an identical bill when the District’s law took effect, it was quickly killed by the state’s General Assembly – the same fate each of the three times he has tried.

While attempts to impose a bag tax in Maryland have also failed, one of the few jurisdictions to pass a similar law is neighboring Montgomery County, which implements its nearly identical tax next January. This creates a tiny local island of social engineering while most are encouraging the recycling of plastic, and paper, bags as a better option and a more responsible environmental policy.

Efforts by some Democrats in Congress to introduce nationwide bag tax legislation have gone nowhere fast. Voters overturned a bag tax passed by the Seattle City Council and the Colorado Legislature abandoned the idea. Other major cities like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Tucson have chosen plastic bag recycling over D.C.’s approach. So have the states of California, New York, Delaware and Rhode Island.

That’s something community member Steve Russell, vice president of plastics for the American Chemistry Council, says makes smart sense.

“Collecting more plastic bags means more valuable recycled material is available for manufacturers – usually small businesses – that rely on it,” Russell notes. Over a trillion pounds of post-consumer plastic bags collected nationwide are recycled annually to make lumber for backyard decks and fencing, lawn and garden products, pallets, crates, containers, piping, building and construction products, automotive applications and new plastic bags.

In fact, one of the most significant downsides to bag taxes is that at-store recycling programs cease.

After Ireland passed a plastic bag tax in 2002, usage decreased by almost 90 percent — much higher than in D.C. — but the sale of heavy-gauge garbage bags and other plastic bag products increased by 400 percent. A “rebound effect” soon followed and the purchase of taxed bags typically used as trash liners, food wrapping and pet clean-up rose after the initial decline.

A widely reported recent District government undercover survey resulted in the discovery that 38 percent of retailers subject to the law are not collecting the tax.

The D.C. Department of the Environment’s “Skip the Bag, Save the River” television ads currently in frequent rotation seem to be in response to this development – reminding viewers that “the law is still in effect.”

The tax collected in the first year was only about half the projected total, muddying the public perception of the intent of the law. Is it to raise funds for the long-running Anacostia River cleanup or to discourage bag use, or both? And how to reconcile the two, especially amid suggestions to redirect the money to the city’s general fund?

That is the most vexing perceptual contradiction of the law. The fewer taxed bags used, the less the amount collected.

Ironically, businesses collecting the tax also profit from the law. No longer burdened by the expectation that complementary bags will be provided, large retailers such as CVS, 7-Eleven, Giant, Safeway and Whole Foods both reduce their expense and retain a portion of the proceeds from each plastic or paper bag requested. They also sell reusable bags and retain double the standard fee if they credit consumers when used.

Another warm-and-fuzzy-feeling regulation originating with D.C. Council members Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), it is riddled with mixed messages and unintended consequences.

Hand me a plastic bag – this is one dog of a mess!

Mark Lee is a local small business manager and long-time community business advocate. Reach him at

  • The DC Bag tax accomplished exactly what it was meant to do – reduce the amount of plastic bag trash in the Anacostia River. It has been reduced by more than 60%. One million dollars in grants were just awarded to community based environmental groups for additional river clean up from the nickel raised from the nominal charge for disposable bags.

    Because of its effectiveness, as the author notes, Montomery Co. just passed the same bill but covers virtually all bags not just food related. I believe DC should update its law to do the same to reduce the confusion cited.

  • Most of the wastes found in our oceans and rivers are plastic materials, so the tax scheme has done something to lessen these wastes. But, the thing about plastic bags is not about its production, but the way they are disposed by people. We can blame ourselves for that.

  • I find that hard to beLIEve, Councilman Wells, that a 60% reduction of the trash in the Anacostia River has been seen. I also find it offensive that I am penalized because some low lifes want to litter and soil our streets, waterways and public parks due to the permissive and relaxed expectations our government has put on them. Let’s hold those accountable who cause the problem, not those of us who provide a solution. I do, and have carried my groceries and purchases in a canvas bag for close to ten years now. This is the most corrupt and inept city government I have had the displeasure of living in, and this administration is worse than the last.

  • While this is all very interesting, I thought the Blade had a policy that highlights the gay characteristic of any issue. So, I think Mark Lee has a friend that he met at his Lizard Lounge parties who works for the American Chemical Council’s plastic division which has been actively fighting against plastic bag bans across the country such as the Toledo, Ohio area. It should be known that ACC is on record for being one of the few to testify against DC’s 5 cent bag during the hearings when this law was first proposed. We did not hear from Mark Lee, then so why now? Its because there is a active campaign to gut the law going on. But my real question is to Kevin Naff. When is your organization going to fact check?

  • I live on a busy retail corridor in NW. Since the bag tax went into effect our street is no longer littered with plastic bags after a busy weekend. While my observation is not a scientific survey we simply no longer have a problem. Our street is much cleaner than it was before the tax. I would like to add Mark Lee is the same person who told us if the District enacted its no smoking regulations the cities nightlife would crumble and its patrons move to VA.

  • To the extent Mr. Lee identifies a problem, he falls short of offering any solutions. I agree with the DC Council that disposable plastic bag proliferation is a problem: 1) While there are between 500 billion and 1 trillion plastic bags consumed on earth each year according to USEPA and National Geographic, less than 1% are recycled (Christian Science Monitor); 2) It costs $4000 to process and recycle 1 ton of plastic bags, which can be sold on the commodities market for only $32, according to the San Francisco Dept. of the Environment; 3) National Marine Debris Monitoring Program measures show that plastic bags account for over 10% of debris washed onto US coasts, and they have been found as far away as the Arctic Circle and the Falkland Islands, where they can entangle and kill birds, sea mammals and turtles, and other wildlife; 4) CNN in November of 2007 explained that plastic shopping bags are made from polyethylene, a thermoplastic made from oil. CNN added in January 2008 that China will save 37 million barrels of oil each year due to their ban on free plastic bags. If 20% of the US population switches to reusable bags, then we would save 1,330,560,000,000 bags over our lifetime. Whereas federal courts often cite states’ roles as laboratories for experiments in democracy through the powers reserved to the people under the 10th Amendment of the US constitution, it’s ironic that Mr. Lee denigrates this legitimate local government exercise of public health and safety responsibilities by labeling disposable plastic bag ordinances as ‘social engineering’. Viewed another way, social engineering occurs when Madison Ave. marketers and other capitalist pirates seduce us into wanting something we don’t need, and further fool us into believing that we lack capacity to bring our own bag to carry our loot home. Leading our cultural rejection of addiction to disposable plastics and foreign oil imports is instead an example of social enlightenment. Adam Ebbin will make a great Senator in Virginia, and Tommy Wells and Mary Cheh deserve credit for their leadership on this important issue. Because Mr. Lee fails to articulate a solution to a problem he admits to, at least by implication, I wish to remind Blade readers: a) Reduce, b) reuse, c) recycle – in this order.

  • The plastic bag tax is an ugly regressive tax that falls disproportionately on the poor and the elderly. The tax is profitable for Safeway and CVS whose clerks have been instructed to ask in a whiny tone, “Need a bag?” They never ask, “Do you want to purchase a bag?” Personally, I have not paid one penny for a plastic bag since the tax went into effect, and not because of my concern for the environment. Of the four cents that go to the district, none goes to cleanup of the Anacostia River.

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