Nickel tax on disposable bags prompts people to turn to reusable bags

Celebs and politicians show their green side by sporting attractive -- and reusable -- shopping bags.
By Jura Koncius
Thursday, February 4, 2010

One of Washingtonians' worst fears these days is being caught shopping without their own bags. As people adjust to the new five-cent fee on disposable bags in the District, everyone seems to have something to say on the subject.

Local shoppers are assembling a wardrobe of bags that are functional, fashionable or both. They are getting used to bringing their own, even if they have to rush back to their cars to retrieve them. D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) equipped her car with blue-and-white bags from Ikea last year. Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) keeps handy a red cloth bag autographed by go-go musician Chuck Brown for quick shopping trips. Many are buying reusable bags at store registers at Giant, Safeway or Whole Foods. Some have watched in dismay as customers have handed cashiers beat-up, dirty paper bags.

Nikki Zook, who lives on Capitol Hill, says she started buying 99-cent reusable bags at Harris Teeter about a year ago and now has a dozen. Zook has noticed an uptick in bag users since the nickel tax was instituted Jan. 1 at stores that sell food and/or alcohol. "It's great that the money raised from the bag sales will go towards cleaning up the Anacostia River. . . . A large part of the debris in there is plastic bags."

So far the transition has been a bit rough for a lot of consumers, though some eco-conscious shoppers have long toted their own. The issue is a serious one, according to Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Plastic bags are the most common form of litter in the world," he says. Hershkowitz estimates that using one reusable bag for one year can replace 300 to 700 disposable plastic bags.

The D.C. law is also making Virginia and Maryland residents more aware of their bagging habits. Danielle Walton of Gaithersburg has been using Pack-N-Tote reusable bags for several years. "I haven't seen too many other people doing it," she says. "But lately, every time I use my bags, someone asks me where I got them."

Retailers are doing their part. Many gave out reusable bags last month. The Bethesda Trader Joe's has signs outside to remind customers to bring in bags from their cars.

Meanwhile, the reusable bag is becoming part of popular culture, thanks to a stable of companies that has been churning out hip models. Blogs have posted photos of Justin Timberlake tossing lime-green Envirosax bags into his car. Movie director James Cameron gives Baggu foldable bags as gifts.

Judy Philactos, owner of the Periwinkle gift shop in Chevy Chase, D.C., recently had to reorder all of her lines of reusable bags because of brisk sales. One of her top sellers is the Bohemian-style Emma Bridgewater burlap bag from England ($10) with the slogan "Take an old bag shopping."

Philactos says Washingtonians want to be green but also stylish. "People want fun bags. They are getting tired of the generic printed bags that grocery stores are giving out or selling. Bags are really a fashion statement."

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