D.C. bag tax collects $150,000 in January for river cleanup

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 30, 2010; B01

The District's 5-cent bag tax generated about $150,000 during January to help clean up the Anacostia River, even though residents have dramatically scaled back their use of disposable bags, according to a report city officials issued Monday.

In its first assessment of how the new law is working, the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue estimated that food and grocery establishments gave out about 3 million bags in January. Before the bag tax took effect Jan. 1, the Office of the Chief Financial Officer had said that about 22.5 million bags were being issued each month in 2009.

Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), sponsor of the bag tax bill, said the new figures show that city residents are adapting to the law far more quickly than he or other city officials had expected.

"While it's difficult to project the annual results based on just the first month's experience, the report shows that residents are making great strides in reducing disposable bag use," Wells said.

The tax, one of the first of its kind in the nation, is designed to change consumer behavior and limit pollution in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Under regulations created by the D.C. Department of the Environment, bakeries, delicatessens, grocery stores, drugstores, convenience stores, department stores and any other "business that sells food items" must charge the tax on paper or plastic bags.

A Washington Post poll conducted in January found that residents were almost evenly split on whether they supported the tax, with 46 percent supporting it and 49 percent opposed to it. Support for the bag tax was highest in Northwest Washington, where about six in 10 residents supported it.

District officials had estimated that the tax would generate $10 million over the next four years for environmental initiatives.

The money will go to the newly created Anacostia River Cleanup Fund, which will spend it on various projects.

But in January, the tax generated only $149,432, suggesting that it might fall short of revenue projections.

According to Wells, large retailers have reported that disposable bag usage has dropped by more than half since the tax took effect.

"I'm thrilled with these results," Wells said. "Not only are we reducing the number of disposable bags entering our environment, but we also have new resources flowing in to help with the cleanup of the Anacostia River."

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