Bill to Charge Consumers For Bags Prompts Debate

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 2, 2009; Page B04

Legislation that would require D.C. stores to charge consumers five cents for paper and plastic bags is pitting environmentalists against a contingent of social service groups and plastic-bag makers who say the fee would be a hardship for the poor.

Dozens of activists squeezed yesterday into a room in the John A. Wilson Building for a public hearing on the bill, which would affect grocery stores and other food-licensed businesses.

The legislation is being fast-tracked through the D.C. Council and could make the city one of the toughest in the country on use of paper and plastic bags. Eleven council members co-introduced the legislation, almost guaranteeing that it will become law in some form. The bill is aimed at changing the behavior of consumers in an effort to clean up the Anacostia River.

Under the proposed Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection bill, businesses would keep a penny for each bag sold, and the other four cents would go into a fund that would be created to clean up the Anacostia. If the businesses offered a discount to consumers who bring reusable bags, they would get to keep two cents for each bag sold.

A recent environmental study shows that nearly 50 percent of the trash in the river's tributaries comes from plastic bags. Opponents of the bill say they care about the Anacostia but not at the expense of low-income residents already struggling to buy groceries.

"I have no qualms about cleaning up the Anacostia River," said former Ward 8 council member Sandy Allen. "That little five cents may sound small, but on a continued basis . . . it eats into the income."

Representatives of the food pantries east of the Anacostia River expressed another concern.

George Franklin, director of the food pantry at Covenant Baptist Church in Ward 8, said the pantry is open once a week and uses about 900 plastic bags each week. The pantries recycle the bags among one another, he and other pantry directors said. What happens, they asked, when there are no plastic bags?

The Progressive Bag Affiliates of the American Chemistry Council, a group that represents plastic-bag makers, has assembled activists from Wards 7 and 8, the city's poorest, to rally against the legislation. Automated calls opposing the bill have been targeted at residents in those wards, which have predominantly black populations.

The group, which has successfully fought similar legislation in other cities, has much at stake if the District helps to set a precedent.

Maryland Del. Alfred C. Carr Jr. (D-Montgomery), who has introduced a bill in his state, said, "If the District passes the bill, it will be a domino effect."

Council members and other bill supporters are accusing the plastic bag lobby of using a divide-and-conquer tactic similar to one used in 1987 when the bottle and drink industries defeated a measure that would have imposed a five-cent deposit fee on bottles and cans.

Andy Shallal, owner of the Busboys & Poets restaurant chain, called the strategy "race-baiting and class-baiting." He also said that the bill does not go far enough and that the council should consider a 25-cent or 50-cent fee.

Steve Russell, managing director for the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council, said he did not want to dignify the accusation with a response.

"Our argument is that we oppose the bag tax because it is unjustified and not the best way to clean up the Anacostia. The tax will have a disproportionate affect on those least able to pay," he said.

Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), the bill's author, said: "The approach I'm taking is really to get into your head, not into your pocket."

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