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

By Steve Hendrix
Saturday, January 23, 2010; A01

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."

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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