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In D.C., Bags Might Soon Contain a Fee

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D.C. citizens spoke out Thursday on both sides of the proposed 5 cent fee for any plastic or paper carry out grocery bag to raise money for the Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Fund. Video by Hamil Harris/The Washington Post

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By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 12, 2009

Paper or plastic?

It might end up being neither in the District. That is, unless consumers fork over 5 cents per bag when buying groceries from a supermarket, picking up cold medicine from a drugstore or grabbing a hot dog and soda from a street vendor.

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A majority of the D.C. Council supports legislation that could tax not only plastic bags, but paper ones, too, and make the District home to one of the country's toughest such laws.

For a while now, environmentally conscious lawmakers have taken shots at bags with relative levels of success. 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) has inserted a similar 5-cent fee on plastic bags in his budget proposal in hopes of generating millions in revenue and eventually dissuading their use.

Under the bill, the 5-cent fee would be split between businesses and the city, which would use its share to help clean the Anacostia River and offer free reusable bags to elderly and low-income residents.

The District's proposal could have some consumers trying to balance their environmental instincts against their pocketbooks.

Shayne Cortel, 25, a customer service representative who lives in Northwest Washington, said she thought she was already helping the environment by reusing her plastic bags for bathroom trash. Plus, she said, the 5-cent fee is steep.

"Nowadays, that's a lot of money," she said, calculating the dozens of grocery bags she uses twice a month. Her medium-size white plastic bag from CVS was filled with snacks as she walked to a bus stop on Pennsylvania Avenue.

The bill's author, D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) -- known as a carless, canoeing, bicycle-riding, pedestrian-friendly legislator -- wants to help clean up the badly polluted Anacostia River, and curbing the use of bags is a place to start. The law would apply to liquor stores, grocers, food vendors, convenience stores, drugstores and other businesses.

A recent study by the Anacostia Watershed Society found that plastic bags were "the single largest component of trash" in the eight-mile river and its tributaries.

Maryland Del. Alfred C. Carr Jr. (D-Montgomery) has been working with Wells over the past month and is introducing similar legislation, although a similar bill recently failed to get out of a subcommittee in Virginia's General Assembly.

Wells's bill treats paper no better than plastic. The idea, he said, is to get buy-in from retailers, who say a reliance on costlier paper bags would hurt them. Paper bags cost them 5 cents each, and plastic ones cost 2 cents.


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