Getting a handle on a new tax


Safeway customer Jeff Bulman declines cashier Sheila Jones’s offer of a free reusable bag Sunday, the first day of Montgomery County’s tax on shopping bags. Bulman took his own bright red insulated bags to the Bethesda supermarket. Other shoppers around the county weren’t as prepared for the new 5-cent surcharge, which applies to purchases at nearly all types of retail establishments. (Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST)
January 1, 2012

Delores Price hit the grocery store on New Year’s Day prepared to beat Montgomery County’s new nickel bag tax.

But she emerged from the Shoppers Food & Pharmacy in Wheaton clearly irked. Although Price had brought several cloth bags from home, she said, she had underestimated her shopping by four bags, drawing a 20-cent surcharge.

“This is ridiculous,” said Price, a retired federal worker, as she unloaded a full cart into the trunk of her car outside the store on Randolph Road. “You shouldn’t have to pay for bags when you spend enough money in the store.”

Across Montgomery, the debut of the bag tax surprised many shoppers, drew praise from some who said they hope it will clean up the environment and angered others who said any new tax is too much in a tight economy.

Stores had updated self-guided checkout stations overnight with new software to ask how many bags, if any, a customer wanted. Some stores, including a Safeway in Bethesda, had retrained employees to load bags more tightly, knowing customers paying for each one would be eyeing their packing prowess.


Self-checkout machines at the Safeway on Bradley Boulevard in Bethesda have been programmed to ask customers how many bags they use and to charge them a nickel per bag. Pharmacy bags are exempt from the fee. (Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST)

At a Starbucks in Germantown, confused customers asked whether the tax applied to the little bag for their muffin. Answer: Muffin bags are still free, but the bigger bags with the handles will cost you.

Montgomery’s tax on plastic and paper bags, which the County Council approved in May, is an expanded version of a 5-cent bag tariff enacted in the District two years ago. While the District’s surcharge applies only to businesses that sell food or alcohol, Montgomery’s bag tax involves nearly all retail establishments, not just those that sell food. The few exceptions include paper bags from restaurants and pharmacy bags for prescription drugs.

Montgomery officials have said they expect the tax to raise $1 million a year, most of which will go toward financing storm water management and water quality programs. Some revenue will be used to buy reusable bags for the poor and elderly, officials have said.

The goal, supporters say, is to encourage shoppers to reduce the number of plastic bags that end up polluting the Anacostia and Potomac rivers. By taxing paper bags as well, officials said, they will prevent shoppers from simply choosing paper. Local officials have said the tax is easily avoidable: Just bring a reusable bag.

But that’s easier said than done, many said Sunday.

Barbara Fisher of Bethesda had a red-and-white cloth bag rolled up tightly in her purse as she pushed her cart down the Safeway aisles on Bradley Boulevard. Fisher said she has gotten used to tucking a cloth bag into her purse and briefcase for shopping and eating out during her workday in the District.

“I probably remember 20 percent of the time,” Fisher said. “I have a lot of very nice bags at home, and I don’t have a car. If it’s not in my purse, it’s not going to happen.”


Rather than pay 5 cents for a bag, Vicki Seed of Bethesda opts to carry her purchases by hand from the Safeway store on Bradley Boulevard. She said she had shopped there earlier in the day but forgot to buy the two items. (Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner (D-Bethesda-Potomac) said he appreciates that creating new habits takes time. Berliner said he keeps about five reusable bags in the back of his black Toyota Prius but often forgets to take them into his local Giant.

“I actually do think the 5-cent tax is good for people like me, who forget and need that little reminder, that little smack upside the head,” Berliner said.

Jeff Bulman, owner of Original Pancake House restaurants in Bethesda and Rockville, took his usual bright red insulated bags to Safeway. Fewer disposable bags means less trash, he said. Although in the past he has opted for store bags when he has forgotten his own in the trunk, he said, “I’ll run back now” to avoid the tax.

Several shoppers said they’ll reluctantly pay for the convenience of not having to remember to bring their own bags.

Julie Simms of Germantown said she spent 20 cents on plastic bags at Safeway on Sunday, even though she has plenty of bags at home that she forgot to bring.

“It’s ridiculous,” Simms said of the new tax. “With today’s economy the way it is, every 5 cents adds up.”

shaverk@washpost.com

Read more on PostLocal.com:

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Katherine Shaver is a transportation and development reporter. She joined The Washington Post in 1997 and has covered crime, courts, education and local government but most prefers writing about how people get — or don’t get — around the Washington region.
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