D.C. shoppers opt for roughing it over paying 5-cent bag tax

D.C. resident Takia Holmes opts for an armload over buying a bag.
D.C. resident Takia Holmes opts for an armload over buying a bag. (Bill O'leary/the Washington Post)
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By Steve Hendrix
Saturday, January 23, 2010

Virginia Johnson thinks the bag fee might be driving her crazy.

Three weeks into the District's new nickel charge for shopping bags, Johnson has found herself doing things that make little sense just to save . . . little cents.

Normally no penny-pincher, she now maps her day's travels to avoid having to shop in the District; she has abandoned her beloved neighborhood grocery store, Harris Teeter on Capitol Hill, in favor of stores near her Virginia office -- even though she pays an extra 2.5 percent food tax there. And twice she has unwisely carried an armload of bagless food out of D.C. restaurants, with calamitous results.

In one case, to avoid paying an extra one-quarter of 1 percent on a $20 dinner, she said no to a plastic bag, stumbled in a hole outside a Sizzling Express lunch spot and watched a whole tray of sushi hit the deck in front of the eatery on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. The next day, jostled on a busy sidewalk, she lost her unbagged lunch in front of a Cosi at Dupont Circle.

"It's not rational, I know," said Johnson, a legislative affairs specialist at a federal agency and a self-described environmentalist who was already dedicated to recycling bags. "But this is where my zeal for conservation runs into my passion for small government. The bag tax makes me batty; I'll do a lot to avoid paying it."

Less than a month into the program, which D.C. officials describe as an effort to reduce litter and generate funds to clean up the Anacostia River, the nickel bag fee is having a big impact. Managers at stores that sell food or beverages say the switchover has cut the use of plastic bags by half or more. One Safeway in Northwest reports a falloff of more than 6,000 bags a week, about half of its former volume.

And for customers, the bag law is changing the District's carryout culture in ways large and small. A lunchtime army of office workers now ply the sidewalks with near-naked sandwiches and sodas filling their hands, making some diners more self-conscious about what they buy. Parking lots feature impromptu juggling acts as determined fee-avoiders teeter to their cars with heaping armloads of loose groceries. And people are stockpiling reusable shopping bags -- and routinely forgetting to take them shopping.

"I've got a bunch of them, but I never remember to bring them," said Nancy Way as she pushed a cart filled with a jumble of pork chops, chips, bottles of tea and 19 other loose items across the parking lot of the Giant on Alabama Avenue in Southeast. "Now it looks like I'm stealing all this."

Inside, the bag racks at the self-checkout lanes were empty, but a clerk was stationed there to sell bags as needed. Across the city, at the Safeway on Davenport Street NW in Tenleytown, workers had to remove the recycling bins in front of the store after too many shoppers were found pilfering soiled bags to use for their new purchases. "You don't know what anybody puts in those bags at home," said store manager Mark Schepers. "I don't want anybody getting sick."

Schepers said his shop's weekly bag consumption has plummeted from between 12 and 15 cases a week to about six cases. And Shiv Agarwal, owner of Spice Express on Vermont Avenue, said his Indian takeaway is using about 60 percent fewer bags than before the year began.

"It's shocking," Agarwal said. "Before, 130, 140 people a day wanted a bag. Now, maybe 50 do. Only if it's raining do more people want one."

That such wholesale change in retail behavior could come from a five-cent fee is no surprise to Dan Ariely, an economics professor at Duke University and author of "Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions."

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