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D.C. bags wasteful shopping habit with tax on paper and plastic

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By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 2, 2010

It seemed like a good idea at the time -- good for the environment and all -- but in the bleak light of the new year, some people shopping in the District weren't happy about the debut of the 5-cent bag fee.

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"It's stupid," said Daniel Dyson, 22, a clerk for the U.S. Marshals Service. He had already been charged twice for bags -- once at 7-Eleven, once at the liquor store -- before noon.

"I don't want to pay for bags. It's too much," he said.

The District's user fee on plastic and paper bags at stores that sell food and/or alcohol went into effect New Year's Day and is one of the toughest such measures in the country.

Lawmakers hope the tax will make the nation's capital more green-friendly and help the environment, with proceeds going to fund the cleanup of the Anacostia River. They estimate it will produce about $3.6 million in revenue in the first year, an amount that might decline as awareness grows and people get used to bringing reusable bags when they go shopping.

"It's controversial because it goes to asking people to think about whether they need disposable bags or not when they go to the store. Before, you never had to think about that," said D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who sponsored the bill.

In interviews, residents exhibited varying degrees of awareness and enthusiasm about the law, which the District has tried to promote in recent weeks by sending businesses logo stickers and signs reading "Skip the Bag, Save the River." Some customers said they knew it was coming, but not when. Others were caught unaware.

"You've got to be kidding me," said an incredulous Sameer Advani, 24, when told he would be charged 5 cents for a bag at Bestway Liquors on 14th Street NW.

Monique Johnson, 31, the lottery agent at Columbia Wine & Liquor in Northeast Washington, said she has spent the last week trying to warn her customers that the new fee was coming, but "I get dirty looks all the time."

Officials at Giant Food opposed the bill when it was introduced last year, but appeared fully on board on Day One, handing out free reusable bags at all seven of its D.C. locations. Stores will distribute some 250,000 bags this week. Other stores, such as CVS and Safeway, also gave away free bags.

Americans use billions of plastic sacks every year, and only a fraction are recycled. Jurisdictions across the country have considered laws to reduce the waste, with varying degrees of success -- San Francisco has banned plastic bags, but an effort to impose a 20-cent bag tax in Seattle was rejected. Lawmakers in Virginia and Maryland have said they will introduce similar measures in legislative sessions this year.

Discarded bags sometimes make their way into the District's storm-water drains and nearby waterways, including the polluted eight-mile stretch of the Anacostia River in Southeast Washington, where they become tangled in trees and roots.

Wells said he garnered support for the measure last year by showing his colleagues pictures of the Anacostia's trash islands -- floating blobs of debris latticed with plastic bags. The D.C. Department of the Environment found in a recent study that 47 percent of the trash in the Anacostia's tributaries and 21 percent in the river itself is plastic bags.

Businesses will retain 1 to 2 cents of the new fee; the remainder will go to the Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Fund.

"They got to raise money some kind of way, and people will change their habits and that's a good thing," said Orlan Sharpe, 50, a construction worker shopping Friday at the Giant in Columbia Heights. "The country needs to change. Energy costs are going up and we don't have a lot of natural resources."

Paige Sharpe, 34, a lawyer who was shopping later Friday at the same Giant, said she has been using reusable shopping bags for about two years but opposes the measure.

"I think it's ridiculous," she said. "I don't think you should force people to pay a tax to go to the grocery store, especially in this economy."


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