San Francisco and several other California cities have banned plastic shopping bags, and the issue is under debate in other localities. Prince George’s County pursued a five-cent bag tax, but the measure died last year in the General Assembly.
The District imposed the region’s first bag fee in 2010, one more narrowly cast than Montgomery’s, covering only businesses that sell food and alcohol. The city claimed an 80 percent drop in bag usage during the first year: from 270 million to about 55 million. It earned about $1.8 million in fees in fiscal 2011, about half of what officials projected.
But no one is really sure how many plastic and paper bags were used before the taxes took effect.
Montgomery established 82.9 million bags as its benchmark, a figure officials said they derived from the D.C. data and then adjusted for the number of retail establishments in the county.
The District pulled its estimate of 270 million bags from a study conducted by Seattle, a city selected for its comparable size. But District officials have backed off from that number and now acknowledge that they’re not sure.
“We really don’t know,” said Jeffrey Seltzer, stormwater administrator for the D.C. Department of the Environment. “We truly believe it [the impact] is significant, but getting precise empirical data hasn’t been done.” He said the city has commissioned a study to get a better fix on bag usage.
Beth Mullin, executive director of the Rock Creek Conservancy, said the tax has clearly helped. The annual spring cleanups in April 2011 and 2012 show a 25 percent drop in the number of bags recovered in Montgomery, from 5,274 to 3,957.
“Our cleanup leaders report that in many areas their sites are significantly cleaner than in past years, and our numbers back that up,” Mullin said in an e-mail.
Michael Honig, vice president of the board of the Muddy Branch Alliance, whose members regularly pick up trash along county streams, said the difference is unmistakable.
“This is truly a welcome relief,” he said. “And I would rate it a rousing success.”
Farah Mohamed contributed to this report.