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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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Because plastic bags have always been free, Ariely said, shoppers have come to see them as a kind of entitlement. Adding even a tiny fee is an affront to what they cherish as the natural order of things. "When it goes from zero to even a very small charge, it can feel very bad," he said. "It creates a very small financial burden but a very big emotional reaction."

Outrage over tax increases usually fades over time because the increase is buried within an item's cost, but Ariely predicts that the bag fee will continue to change behavior as consumers get a stark reminder every time a clerk asks how many bags they want to buy.

"This is like a behavioral economist's dream," Ariely said of the D.C. law. "Here we will see people go to extreme lengths to save very little money."

So far, most customers are finding simple alternatives to paying the nickel, retailers said. More and more are bringing the reusable bags that many grocery stores have been giving away in recent weeks. (Schepers says he offers a free Safeway bag to anyone who comes in with one bearing a competitor's logo: "I just prefer not to see Giant bags in my store," he said.) Others are tucking small purchases into pockets or briefcases.

But plenty are going to more elaborate lengths.

Allen Purvis proudly boasts that he has not a paid a nickel since the fee was imposed, even though that recently required him to carry six loose bottles of Kendall Jackson chardonnay out of a liquor store on P Street in Georgetown. With $71 of wine at risk and the store owner looking on in horror, Purvis tucked the bottles in and under his arms and made it to his car.

"And then I went, 'Crap; it's locked,' " Purvis said. "I was definitely more fixated on not paying for the bag than on getting them to the car."

Purvis, like many shoppers, is also learning how much privacy was afforded by that once-free plastic film. He has become a sort of dry-goods voyeur.

"Now you can see what people buy," the retired lawyer said. "They've got a carton of milk, a can of SPAM. You wonder, 'What's he going to do with that SPAM?' "

Purvis said he will probably keep up his bag boycott until he buys something either too big or too embarrassing to carry unbagged.

David Greene, a government contractor in Southwest, said his daily walk from the deli near his office has become a little more intimidating now that the homeless men he passes can get a clear look at his turkey wrap, Coke and Cheetos. "It's a little awkward," Greene said. "These people are sitting on the cold cement, they're hungry and they're looking at my sandwich."

City officials say they won't have a tally on the revenue collected through the bag fee until the end of next month. But so far they are pleased with the reported drop in the numbers of bags being used, even if that means less money going to the government.

If the city's receipts from the bag fee fell to zero, "We would love that," said Charles Allen, chief of staff to D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), father of the bag bill. "That's our goal. That would mean people have made the shift and are no longer using the disposable bags, which represent 47 percent of the trash in Anacostia River tributaries."

Plenty of shoppers have told store owners that they are all for the bag bill's environmental goals. And even Johnson acknowledges that she will feel differently about the tax if it actually creates a cleaner watershed. "I'll be the first to eat my crow sushi," she said.

But for now the bag tax still has a last-straw feel to it to Johnson and other beleaguered shoppers, a final indignity from a city government they see as trying to wring every cent from residents without providing much service in return.

"I pay enough taxes to D.C.," said Way, the shopper with the cart full of loose items in Southeast. "They could give me a dang plastic bag."

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