One Year Later: Grading DC’s Bag Fee

A year ago, DC became the first major city in the US to impose a charge on disposable bags, enacting a 5 cent bag fee.

We know the fee was progressive, but a year on, how is the fee doing at meeting it’s goals? We grade the progress for you:

Dispensing fewer plastic bags: Bag use has dropped markedly – an astounding 50% – since the fee was enacted. According to CNN, “Some big name grocers like Giant, Safeway and Harris Teeter have reported that bag use by their customers has fallen by 60%.” While this progress is great, other US cities, such as San Francisco, Oakland, and Malibu, have banned plastic bags outright.

Surprisingly, maybe, China banned plastic bags in January 2008 and experienced a similar reduction in bag use.  “After two years, the poorly-enforced law has nonetheless dropped plastic bag consumption by a whopping 50% – keeping an estimated 100 billion plastic bags out of the landfills” – equivalent to the total amount thrown away by Americans each year.  A-

Raising money for Anacostia River clean-up: The fee has only generated a third as much revenue as expected through September ($1.3 million raised vs $3.6 million estimated). However, as lower revenue means that less bags are being used, this is actually a positive trade-off; costing consumers less while helping to keep trash out of the river. B+

Keeping bags out of the River in the first place: The Allison Ferguson Foundation keeps amazingly detailed notes on how much and what kind of trash is retrieved from the Anacostia River each year during their annual clean up events. In 2009, 41,122 plastic bags were removed from the river and disposed. In 2010, that number fell to 21,597. Plastic-bag numbers in 2007 and 2008 were lower than both 2009 and 2010. The verdict may still be out on this one. B


Changing behavior: Perhaps most importantly, the behavior of a whole city has changed. Cashiers ask whether shoppers would like a bag and reusable bags are now commonplace.  Charles Allen, chief of staff to D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, who sponsored the fee sums it up best: “The goal from the very beginning was to get into your head, not your wallet,” says Allen. “And a nickel did just that.” A+

On campus the bag fee has helped with our overall Zero Waste Plan which calls for zero waste being sent to the landfill.  To help bolster awareness of and participation in finding alternatives to plastic bags we’ve also included reusable bags as giveaways to new students and put signs on cash registers. With no widespread plastic bag recycling on campus, the fee has surely helped us to divert what would have otherwise been landfilled. Reducing is always the best option in the “reduce, reuse, recycle” equation.