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Bag tax raises $150,000, but far fewer bags used

The District's 5-cent bag tax generated about $150,000 during the month of January to help clean up the Anacostia River, even though residents have dramatically scaled back their use of disposable bags, according a report city officials issued Monday.

In its first assessment of how the new law is working, the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue estimates that city food and grocery establishments issued about 3.3 million bags in January, which suggests a remarkable decrease. Prior to the bag tax taking effect Jan 1, the Office of the Chief Financial Officer had estimated that about 22.5 million bags were being issued per month in 2009.

Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), sponsor of the bag tax bill, said the new figures show that city residents are adapting to the law far more quickly than he or other city officials had expected.

"While it's difficult to project the annual results based on just the first month's experience, the report shows that residents are making great strides in reducing disposable bag use," Wells said.

The tax, one of the first of its kind in the nation, is designed to change consumer behavior and limit pollution in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Under regulations created by the D.C. Department of the Environment, bakeries, delicatessens, grocery stores, pharmacies and convenience stores that sell food, as well as restaurants and street vendors, liquor stores and "any business that sells food items," has to charge the tax on paper or plastic bags.

A Washington Post poll conducted in January found that District residents were almost evenly split on whether they supported the tax, with 46 percent supporting it and 49 percent opposed to it. Support for the bag tax was highest in Northwest Washington, where about six in 10 residents supported it.

District officials had estimated that the tax would generate about $10 million during the next four years for environmental initiatives. The money will be sent to the newly created Anacostia River Cleanup Fund, which will spend it on various projects.

But in January, the tax only generated $149,432, suggesting that the bag tax might fall short of revenue projections.

According to Wells, large retailers in the city have reported that disposable bag usage has dropped by more than half since the tax went into effect.

"I'm thrilled with these results," Wells said. "Not only are we reducing the number of disposable bags entering our environment, but we also have new resources flowing in to help with the cleanup of the Anacostia River."

-- Tim Craig

By Washington Post Editors  |  March 29, 2010; 3:45 PM ET
Categories:  City Finances , City Life , D.C. Council , Tim Craig  
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Comments

I just buy the plastic on the very rare occasion that I shop in the District. I am the spur of the moment kinda shopper and I don't always have a recycle bag with me. However, when I do plan on shopping, I make a short shot across the bridge to H&T or Shoppers in Potomac Yards, which, I've learned yields very conveniently to Target.

Posted by: concernedaboutdc | March 29, 2010 4:28 PM | Report abuse

These figures are SO BOGUS! people are still using bags--its just that many of these Mom and Pop stores are pocketing those nickels. Have you noticed that some don't even ring up the bag purchase, but just toss the nickels into a box or other container near the register? They are not reporting those nickels to the government. Plus, the law is a sham anyway. Bags sold in Tenley Park have nothing to do with the Anacostia River and most of the bags sold in Anacostia do not wind up in the river. Stop jerking our chains and call it what it is--a tax!

Posted by: PepperDr | March 29, 2010 4:30 PM | Report abuse

Hey PepperDr, I don't think anyone is NOT calling it a tax. Heck, read the title of the article; BAG TAX.

Posted by: reiflame1 | March 29, 2010 4:34 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, I have a really hard time believing that bag use dropped from 22.5M to 3M (150k*20). Either the 22.5 M estimate was lousy or the tax administration is lousy. My money is on the latter.

Posted by: ah___ | March 29, 2010 5:18 PM | Report abuse

It doesn't make much sense to go over to Virginia to shop. Sure you don't pay the nickle bag tax but you do get to pay the 2 1/2% sales tax on all the food you buy.

On a $100 grocery run in Va you could buy 50 plastic bags in DC.

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Posted by: clermontpc | March 30, 2010 1:15 AM | Report abuse

Awesome news. Next step: deposits for cans and bottles. they work wonders for keeping plastic and glass off the streets.

Posted by: ironmange | March 30, 2010 11:51 AM | Report abuse

@HillmanDC: The shopping experience in VA has always surpassed that of DC. Case in point, parking. That, and the fact that you have a greater choice of stores to choose from in very close proximity. H&T, Pentagon City, Shoppers, Pier One, Target, Barnes/Noble, Sports Authority, Movie Theater, host of restaurants, etc., etc.

The shopping experience is well worth the 2% sales tax. Funny thing is, I feel vindicated by shopping there. If I am going to pay a tax, it will be called a tax and not a tax masquerading as a fee. I carry a recycle bag in my backpack, but, unfortunately for he District and its business community, I find that I don't need to use it very much. I am still in that rebellious mode I suppose. Hey, it gets me out of the city more.

Posted by: concernedaboutdc | March 30, 2010 2:01 PM | Report abuse

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