The cultural shift has not been as dramatic as hoped. County shoppers have been more willing to pay for their plastic than anticipated. Officials projected a 60 percent decline in bag usage for the current fiscal year — from 82.9 million to 33.1 million. But through the first five months of fiscal 2013, businesses have already sold 24.8 million traditional bags.
Money from the tax, estimated at $1 million for this fiscal year, is on pace to exceed $2 million. The money goes to water quality and stormwater control programs.
“It’s a little more [revenue] than we thought we would take in,” said Patrick Lacefield, spokesman for County Executive Isiah Leggett (D). “The paradoxical thing here is that the executive wants us to take in less money.”
There is uncertainty about how much paper and plastic shoppers actually used before passage of the tax, making it difficult to gauge exactly how effective the tax has been. But environmental groups that conduct periodic cleanups of county stream banks report a significant reduction in the number of bags recovered.
The tax covers virtually every retail business in the county. But that doesn’t mean that shoppers who bag milk and eggs in their reusable totes will use them for the shoes they buy at Bloomingdale’s.
“I understand where they’re coming from with it,” said Mathieu Schulman, 23, a veterinary technician, who was shopping at the Giant on Arlington Road in Bethesda. “Five cents — it’s a way to protect our environment. In a way I see that as good. . . . Mostly, I’ve grown into it, so I see it as a good thing.”
But for other kinds of purchases, the plastic habit has been harder to break.
“I do take my bags to the grocery store, but when I come to a store like Macy’s, I think we shouldn’t have to pay for the bag like that,” said Lillian Day, 67, of Potomac, on a recent visit to the Westfield Montgomery Mall. “I don’t mind in a grocery store, but in these kind of stores when you’re buying a garment, I think it should be wrapped.”
Montgomery County Council member Roger Berliner, who supported the tax, said it may be time to tweak it to cover only stores that sell food and drink.
“The supermarket case is a slam dunk. But I don’t think you and I go into Nordstrom’s with our reusable bags,” said Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) “There isn’t that same nexus to our consciousness. . . . Let’s make sure we don’t create resentment in pursuit of a worthy objective.”