The D.C. Council's Creative Way to Cut Down on Plastic Bags

Friday, March 27, 2009

ELEVEN OF the 13 members of the D.C. Council are endorsing legislation that would place the District in the forefront of national efforts to reduce local pollution. The proposal is a creative attempt to discourage the use of plastic and paper bags that end up littering the area's roads and waterways. But it faces some fierce opposition.

The legislation, authored by council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), would impose a five-cent tax on every plastic and paper carryout bag from a variety of food establishments, including grocery, drug and liquor stores. Customers would be encouraged to bring their own reusable bags to the supermarket. Businesses would retain one or two cents of each nickel, depending on whether they offered a credit for reusable bags, and the rest would go toward the cost of cleaning up the Anacostia River. Mr. Wells coordinated his approach with similar legislation introduced this year in Virginia and Maryland. The Virginia legislature, alas, killed the legislation, but Maryland is still considering its bill, which would earmark proceeds for Chesapeake Bay protection efforts.

Predictably, environmental groups are backing the effort, while makers of the bags are opposed. Interestingly, there is no unanimity among other business groups. Giant Foods, 7-Eleven and the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington are opposed, while others -- including Safeway, Whole Foods and the Chamber of Commerce -- are taking no position. Critics mainly cite adverse impacts on low-income residents, the bad economic times and the need to give voluntary efforts a chance to make a difference in what everyone concedes is a problem with the ubiquitous bags.

Mr. Wells's carefully written bill effectively deals with such concerns by requiring an intensive public education campaign of six months to a year before the fees would take effect and providing free reusable bags to low-income residents. Mr. Wells has met with seniors and advocates for low-income residents; he reports that interest in protecting the environment cuts across all economic groups. Testimony to the ability of consumers to change their habits is seen in the success of businesses, such as Costco, Save-A-Lot and Ikea, which don't provide free bags.

In truth, there really is no such thing as a free bag. The cost of bags is built into the prices consumers pay for food. And they pay again -- to the tune of $50 million a year in the District -- to pick up litter and trash, including a lot of plastic bags. Council members will hold a public hearing on the bill Wednesday, and they should keep an open mind to modifications needed to deal with reasonable concerns of affected stakeholders. But council members should not back away from this sensible proposal.

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