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In D.C., Bags Might Soon Contain a Fee
Council Considers 5-Cent Charge on Paper and Plastic to Aid Anacostia River

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.

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.

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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