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D.C. posts new regulations to clarify bag tax

Tommy Wells is pleased that
Tommy Wells is pleased that "residents of the District have adapted so quickly." (Jacquelyn Martin - AP)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 6, 2010

The D.C. Department of the Environment published new regulations Friday clarifying which retail stores have to charge the 5-cent tax on plastic bags and how the city will enforce the law.

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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. The District estimates the tax will generate about $10 million during the next four years for environmental initiatives.

But the law has resulted in widespread confusion about which stores have to charge for bags.

The proposed regulations, which will become law after a 30-day public comment period, state that the tax will apply to bakeries, delicatessens, grocery stores, convenience stores that sell food, restaurants, street vendors that sell food, liquor stores and "any business that sells food items."

The tax will also apply to stores that sell both food and non-food items, such as many pharmacies, regardless of whether a customer buys food.

But the new regulations, published in the D.C. Register, state that the tax will generally not apply to bags used to package goods inside food stores. For example, a customer cannot be charged for bags used inside a store to "package bulk items, such as fruit, nuts, grains or candy."

Bags that package newspapers, prescription drugs, laundry or dry cleaning are also exempt, as are "paper carryout bags provided to a customer to take away food from a restaurant."

Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), the sponsor of the bill, said the regulations are closely aligned with the legislation the council passed in June.

However, Wells is concerned about a provision in the bill calling for a study on whether the city should make a hardship exemption for "certain types of retail establishments." Wells said he's baffled by the provision because the tax doesn't cost the businesses any money.

"I have not heard it being a hardship on retail establishments," he said. "There has been some customer concerns, but it seems since the fee is charged to the customer and not the business, that really doesn't make any sense," Wells said.

The tax, Wells and other city leaders say, is thought to have already resulted in an increased use of reusable bags. Some grocers, particularly in well-heeled areas of the city, report that they now use about half as many plastic or paper bags as before the law was passed. Many now sell reusable bags for about $1.

During the first days of the tax, several chain grocery stores handed out free reusable bags.

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