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

Video
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

The D.C. bill might already be, well, in the bag when it is officially introduced Tuesday. Several D.C. lawmakers and environmentalists will join Wells and Carr at a news conference today at the Anacostia Park boat ramp.

Carr, who represents parts of Chevy Chase and Silver Spring, said he's not sure how much support he will get in Maryland. "It's a way to get consumers in the habit of doing their shopping in a more Earth-friendly way," Carr said, adding that it could benefit the state's coastline and the Chesapeake Bay.

The D.C. bill would have to be signed by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), though the support of nine council members would dissuade a veto. Like all District laws, it would then have to gain approval from Congress.

D.C.'s bill will probably get aggressive resistance from the plastics industry, which has stopped or stalled legislation in other jurisdictions. Wells's legislation could derail recycling programs at stores that encourage shoppers to return their bags, said Shari Jackson, director of the Progressive Bag Affiliates at the Arlington County-based American Chemistry Council, a trade group.

"At the time that we're in a recession, charging consumers an extra 5 cents, 10 cents . . . is more tax on their food bill when they can least afford it," Jackson said.

The paper industry is taking the same stance against consumer costs. In addition, Scott Milburn, spokesman for the D.C.-based American Forest & Paper Association, said, "Paper is the most recycled material on the planet, with more than half of all paper recycled every year, and paper bags are already preferred by environmentally conscious shoppers, so our concern is that this is unlikely to further increase recycling."

Tom Zaucha, president and chief executive of the Arlington-based National Grocers Association, said grocers have begun offering reusable bags. "It's a question that the marketplace will resolve, frankly," he said.

Critics also say there's a financial burden on the poor who would be charged for bags that would normally be free. Wells dismissed the argument, pointing to the plan to distribute free bags to low-income residents. He also said discount supermarkets have found success in changing the habits of shoppers by charging for plastic bags. "Just because you're poor doesn't mean you don't care about the environment," said Wells, 51, who was inspired to take action when he saw trash on the river. He canoes there and has a sailboat, dubbed Hey, Buster. ("That was on the boat when I bought it" -- used, of course.)

Dennis Chestnut, executive director of Groundwork Anacostia River D.C., said the focus should be on the benefits of cleaning up the river. "The cost of not doing it is far greater," Chestnut said. "If we're ever going to turn the river into the resource it can be for the community, we need . . . this."

Are many people throwing plastic bags into the Anacostia?

No.

The bags, which environmentalists say can harm wildlife, often take an indirect trip, said Charles Allen, Wells's chief of staff. It starts with someone dropping a bag on the street, for example. A strong rain pushes a bag into a storm drain, which washes it into the river, he said. The trash could end up costing the city thousands of dollars in fines that are being established by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Food wrappers, Styrofoam products, bottles and cans all follow the same trail and were found in the waterway when two volunteers spent 307 hours monitoring the garbage in the river for the city's Department of the Environment, according to the Watershed Society's trash reduction plan. The plan recommended "political action" to rid the river of the plastic bags, adding that a fee should "effectively remove 47 percent of the trash from tributaries and 21 percent from the main stem of the river."

The fee would not apply to the clear plastic bags used to wrap fruit and produce, or to the small, sleeved paper bags used for pastries. The bill would ban outright such non-recyclable bags as the thin black plastic bags used at convenience stores.


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