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Posted at 2:00 PM ET, 01/ 6/2010

Congrats! The bag tax has changed my behavior.

By editors

By Bryan Dierlam

I have followed the debate and implementation of the D.C. bag tax with consternation. I read in The Post that the law’s proponents wish to encourage people to change their behavior. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) said the law will make people “think about whether they need disposable bags or not when they go to the store.”

What behavior do I need to be encouraged to change? Must I pay five cents even though I already think about my grocery bags?

Here is my family’s current bag behavior: When we buy groceries, we put the empty bags beneath our sink and save them for later reuse. We use them as garbage liners in trash cans instead of buying plastic garbage bags. We store our recyclables in them before placing full bags in the blue bins on recycling day. We place our child’s dirty diapers in them when we are out and about. We occasionally give them to our neighbors, who use them to pick up their dogs’ waste. What, exactly, is wrong with this behavior? Is reduce, reuse, recycle no longer good enough?

We are told this is all about the Anacostia River. I suppose there can be no doubt about that, since, after the grocery stores are paid off with 1 or 2 cents per bag, the remaining proceeds go to an organization dedicated to cleaning the river. Of course, this is a move right out of Political Economics 101 — give the tax revenue to a special interest, and anyone who complains about the tax can be accused of opposing the work of that group.

My family and I will change our behavior by voting with our feet. We’ll go to Virginia to get our bags — and our groceries. I went tonight and was given 55 cents worth of grocery bags free of charge, and they even double-bagged my gallon of milk. I also paid $2.36 in sales tax revenue. I’m not sure that shifting sales tax revenue from the District to Virginia is what the law’s proponents had in mind, but that will be the effect in our household. Unfortunately, it will also affect D.C. businesses.

As for the state of Virginia implementing a similar tax to thwart people like us, good luck getting that past downstate legislators in Richmond. Alexandria and Arlington might try on their own. But last time I checked, the Anacostia doesn’t run there.

By editors  | January 6, 2010; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  D.C., HotTopic, environment  
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Next: Living the low-carbon life


My bag behavior is very similar to yours. I use my "cloth" (recycled plastic, actually) bags when my stock of plastic grocery bags is full. But I occasionally need more trash bags and won't bring my own when shopping.

Posted by: schadenfreude023 | January 7, 2010 9:04 AM | Report abuse

I really don't see this as any different from the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the smoking ban when DC instituted it. Bars and clubs cried that it would send half of their business across the river or into Maryland. It didn't happen, at least not to any significant effect. If it makes you feel better, knock yourself out, but I'd imagine that much like the bars and clubs in the District every Friday and Saturday night, the grocery stores will continue to do a brisk business.

Posted by: ModestProposal | January 7, 2010 11:32 AM | Report abuse

Why are people being such big babies about this? This tax will have the stated effect, although obviously not every person throws bags in the Anacostia River. Similarly, some speeders are excellent drivers who would never crash, yet we have speed limits covering everyone.

Grow up a bit, people, and pick your battles better. Sheesh.

Posted by: Wallenstein | January 7, 2010 11:35 AM | Report abuse

I have found the policy at Giant (at least in VA) of giving a credit of 5 cents for every bag you bring to reuse (paper, plastic or cloth) to be much more effective for me. I now remember to bring my own bags to use and appreciate that little bit of money back on my bill. Sometimes an incentive can work better than a punishment.

I have also found the cloth bags much easier to carry, so that's a bonus too.

Posted by: HopesMa | January 7, 2010 2:15 PM | Report abuse

It made sense to you to burn more gas to go buy your groceries in Virginia than to pay 55 cents of "bag tax"?

Frankly, I am happy to have an added incentive to use my reusable bags when I grocery shop, because even though I use the plastic grocery bags that I do get from non-grocery stores for things like scooping cat litter, etc., they still pile up, and I hate to throw them away.

Posted by: lauracofer | January 7, 2010 3:46 PM | Report abuse

Grow up.

Posted by: jckdoors | January 7, 2010 4:20 PM | Report abuse

I actually agree with them. Of course I already live in VA. Pick your battles you say? You pick yours. This tax is a waste and won't fix anything. It's typical of the faux "Save the Bay" governments in this area of the country. Instead of making hard choices on limiting discharges into the Anacostia and coming out with something like a bottle bill, they go for the least impactful measure, but one that they can sell to the public so that everyone can pay their socialist nickle and proclaim themself an environmentalist. Now go out there and buy those goods (including cloth shopping bags) made in China (they are so green) so we can put more people in the U.S. out of work.

Posted by: Terps85 | January 7, 2010 8:34 PM | Report abuse

I checked with a bunch of dogs in the neighborhood. They say they don't care if you use a sheet of old newspaper to pick up their leavings.

Posted by: lisaswanson | January 8, 2010 10:06 AM | Report abuse

lisaswanson: A sheet of old newspaper? What's that? Something from the 19th century?

Like Bryan Dierlam, I reused the Giant and CVS plastic bags for wastebasket liners, dog poop scoopers, lunch bags, wet coffee grounds and other garbage containment, etc., etc. I can even remember ever throwing away an unused, empty bag.

Now, my choices are to "buy" them from Giant in the form of a 5 cents per bag grocery carrier or to buy them in a box (more waste!!!) off the shelf at Giant. I still need the same number of plastic bags. So, I'm not sure what this accomplished other than making some liberals feel good about themselves.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | January 8, 2010 2:35 PM | Report abuse

I have to say that my switch to the cloth bags was largely motivated by spite. I would rather be inconvenienced by bringing a cloth bag around than give the D.C. government any more money to fund their trips, contract jobs for girlfriends etc.

Posted by: igotstripes | January 8, 2010 6:34 PM | Report abuse

The District does not have any sales tax on food (except prepared food) whereas Virginia has a 2.5% tax, so I don't understand your behavior. Further by shopping in the District with reusable bags, you can get a discount of $.05 cents per bag. Essentially you are paying a cost of 2.5% of your purchase price for "free" bags. Assuming that your entire bill was for all food items, $2.36 would have "bought" 47 bags in DC.

Posted by: Haien | January 10, 2010 11:39 AM | Report abuse

Haien: I don't know what your experience is with shopping in Virgina, but I have found that many items are cheaper over the Potomac, and because the stores in NoVa tend to be larger, the choice of produce is much better. I figure that into whether I shop in VA or DC, not just the tax difference. So, even with the 2.5% tax, it's often cheaper and better for me to shop there. I always buy gas in VA anyway, because it's so much cheaper than in the District, so it's not as if I'm making a special trip over Chain Bridge for food.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | January 10, 2010 8:37 PM | Report abuse

Here's what I don't quite get about this whole thing...I'm for using a reusable bag and cutting out plastic, however some aspects seem a little extreme:

1. the .5 charge also applies to paper bags though they are biodegradable (whole foods)

2. the charge applies not just groceries but everyplace with food- Barnes and Noble, Filenes Basement, CVS are examples and they are charging even if you don't buy food.

3. It also applies in restaurants for takeout even if you're using paper bags.

And if this is going to be the case, someone should teach baggers how to actually fill up a bag (Harris Teeter on the Hill) instead of just one or two items.

Posted by: ericalbruce | January 12, 2010 12:33 PM | Report abuse

Terps85 said: "[...] one that they can sell to the public so that everyone can pay their socialist nickle and proclaim themself an environmentalist."

What makes you think that you should get plastic bags for free when you shop in a store? What a sense of entitlement you have.

Let me ask you this, T(w)erp: what precisely is socialist about paying for a bag? As a good capitalist, shouldn't you be willing to plunk down your hard-earned nickle for a plastic bag, rather than receiving a handout for free?

Posted by: silverangel75 | January 13, 2010 2:22 PM | Report abuse

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