D.C. Council Approves Plastic Bag Fee

The city council voted unanimously in favor of a tax on plastic bags that will aid conservation efforts.

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It's time for residents of Washington, D.C. to stock up on reusable bags. The D.C. City Council unanimously voted in favor of a 5-cent tax on both paper and plastic bags that, if approved in a second vote later this month, would make the District the first city in the U.S. to institute a bag fee.

San Francisco banned plastic bags outright in 2007, and Los Angeles' ban will go into effect in 2010. Several other cities have tried to assess bag taxes, but have not yet been successful: Seattle residents will vote on a 20-cent tax in August, and a measure in New York was blocked. Last month, the Philadelphia City Council voted against a 20-cent tax on bags, citing the recession.

So what does this mean for consumers in D.C., and other cities that may follow suit? Those who choose not to buy reusable bags can look at an additional $7-$15 dollars spent per year, depending on how frequently they shop. Proceeds will benefit the notoriously polluted Anacostia River in D.C.:

"There is not a river I go to, a park I go, a stream I go to, where I don't see plastic bags everywhere," [Council member Jack] Evans (D-Ward 2) said. "The fact is our country is becoming inundated with plastic bags and plastic bottles. . . . This is the first step to try to address this issue."

Under the plastic bag legislation, called the Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Act, businesses would keep a penny for each bag sold, and the other four cents would go into a fund to clean up the Anacostia. If businesses offer a discount to consumers who bring reusable bags, they would get to keep two cents for each bag sold.

 Opponents have argued that the ban will disproportionately affect the poor.

Will the ban change consumers' habits? We can look to Ireland, where a plastic bag tax reduced use by 94 percent within weeks. Pollution was significantly reduced. Also, said the New York Times, "Plastic bags were not outlawed, but carrying them became socially unacceptable — on a par with wearing a fur coat or not cleaning up after one’s dog."