Low revenue from the bag tax in D.C. is good news

Monday, April 5, 2010

THE DISTRICT of Columbia is not collecting as much money as it thought it would from its tax on disposable bags. And that's good news. The reduced revenue is evidence that the newly enacted law is working exactly as hoped. People are using fewer plastic and paper bags, and that means less litter clogging area streets and waterways.

The D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue reported that the 5-cent fee generated $149,432 in January, the first month of its implementation. That amount translates to about 3 million bags, a far cry from the 22.5 million bags that city officials say were given out each month in 2009. The numbers are preliminary, and it's possible -- given that businesses are still getting used to the reporting system -- that the numbers might increase. Still, it's clear from the reports of businesses and government regulators that bag usage is down by a substantial margin. Revenue from the fee goes to the newly created Anacostia River Cleanup Fund, although Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) has put forth a proposal to use some of the money to clean streets.

The law, aimed at changing consumer behavior, is working so well that its sponsor, D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), wonders if he was too timid in limiting the fee to certain businesses that sell food items. Department stores that sell food also must assess the fee, and consumers seem to be adapting -- either bringing their own bags or forgoing them -- even when their purchases are not food. The city's apparent success is encouraging other jurisdictions to take a look: Mr. Wells's office reports inquiries from Los Angeles County and the state of Connecticut.

We hope that Virginia and Maryland, where lawmakers killed bills this year to impose a similar 5-cent fee, are paying attention. It is, as Mr. Wells said, a win-win: "Not only are we reducing the number of disposable bags entering our environment, but we also have resources flowing in to help with the cleanup of the Anacostia River."

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