D.C. Council Votes to Assess 5-Cent Bag Tax

June 2, 2009

The D.C. Council voted unanimously today to assess a 5-cent tax on paper and plastic bags to try to discourage their use, putting the District at the forefront of efforts nationwide to promote reusable shopping bags.

The proposal, which must be voted on again later this month before it becomes law, is designed to limit pollution into the Anacostia River and its tributaries. A recent environmental study shows that nearly 50 percent of the trash in the river's tributaries comes from plastic bags.

The tax would apply to grocery stores, pharmacies and other food-service providers.

Under the bill, 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 that would be created to clean up the Anacostia.

If the businesses offered 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 Cheh (D-Ward 3), was fast-tracked through the council.

"The Anacostia River is one of the most polluted in this country, and this bill is intended to address one major source of that pollution," Cheh said.
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said the bill can be viewed as a "first step" toward the long-term goal of severely limiting plastic bags and bottles nationwide.

"There is not a river I got to, a park I go, a stream I go to, where I don't see plastic bags everywhere," Evans said. "The fact is our country is becoming inundated with plastic bags and plastic bottles. . . . This is the first step to try to address this issue."

San Francisco is the only large city in the country that has banned plastic bags.

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 it will hurt consumers during a recession.

In the District, the plastics industry, several local businesses and the District Republican Party opposed the tax. The critics argued it would disproportionately impact the city's poorest residents, but they failed to gain traction in drumming up opposition.

"The [plastics] industry has not been able to split us as a city by race and class," Wells said.

If enacted, the Office of the Chief Financial Officer predicts District retailers and grocery stores will cut their consumption of disposable bags by 80 percent within four years.

"I look forward to a crystal-clear Anacostia River," council member Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) said before the vote. "We are going to be able to fish, and actually eat the fish."