VIEWS: Paper or Plastic? Or Neither?

Dispatch from SSC Intern Barbara Summers

The DC Council gave final approval on June 16 for legislation requiring shoppers to pay five cents per disposable bag at grocery, drug, convenience and liquor stores. Considering the council voted unanimously for the legislation, there is little danger that the bill will not be passed. The new tax will be placed on both paper and plastic bags and the only way to avoid the tax will be to bring your own shopping bags.

About 270 million disposable paper or plastic bags are used in D.C. each year and officials estimate that that number would drop in half in the first year and 80 percent within four years if this bill is enacted. Retailers will get to keep one cent of the fee, with the other four cents going toward Anacostia River cleanup.

The Anacostia River is polluted by 20,000 tons of trash each year, of which plastic bags are one of the most significant contributing factors. It is expected that the fee will initially raise between $3-4 million annually for the Anacostia River cleanup, although the amount will most likely decrease as more residents use their own bags. The city plans on distributing reusable bags to low-income households in response to concerns that this tax would place an unfair burden on the poor.

There have been only a few cities in the US that have taken on the issue of plastic bags. Los Angeles and San Francisco have been the leaders in this movement. San Francisco was the first city to ban plastic shopping bags. Los Angeles has recently pass legislature that will ban plastic bags from stores beginning in July 2010 and shoppers will be charged 25 cents for a paper or biodegradable bag. A close neighbor to DC, Baltimore, is also considering a plastic bag tax of 25 cents per bag. Baltimore’s proposed legislature is being met with significantly more controversy than DC and many of the Council members are in disagreement about the issue. Other major cities including Seattle and New York are proposing similar plastic bag taxes.