Washington reduces disposable bag usage by half

One year after it became law, the District of Columbia's Bag Bill has led to new behaviors, new attitudes, fewer bags in the river and more money to clean up our waterways.
Written by Melanie D.G. Kaplan, Inactive

This month marks one year since Washington’s Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Act of 2009--otherwise known as the Bag Bill--became law. What a difference a year can make: The bill has led to new behaviors, new attitudes, fewer bags in the river and more money to clean up our waterways.

The District of Columbia, which has become the first city in the nation with a successful paper and plastic bag tax program, has brought in $1.7 million (as of October) for the river clean-up fund and has become a model to a number of states and neighboring jurisdictions interested in drafting similar legislation.

Anecdotally, I can say that the bag tax has created a sea change in residents’ attitudes about shopping bags. Among my friends and neighbors, it’s just expected now that one goes shopping with a reusable bag. This might not sound transformative, but it seems that the 5-cent tax (for any disposable paper or plastic carryout bag you need to purchase if you don’t bring your own) has provided just enough pressure that many of us have--with very little resistance—now taken on the burden of providing our own bags.

I have seen people walk out of stores balancing an armful of groceries rather than pay the nickel tax, and the one time in 2010 I found myself having to buy a bag, I felt a flash of shame. It’s amazing to me how quickly behavior seems to have changed, and how seamlessly it happened. Turns out 5 cents is sufficient to push citizens in a more sustainable direction and to reduce the number of plastic bags ending up in our rivers and landfills. What is every other city in the United States waiting for?

To learn more about the success of the Bag Bill in the last year, I checked in with the District Department of the Environment (DDOE), Here’s what I found:

  • More than 5,000 businesses are now (by law) working with the District in the bag tax program.
  • From January 2010 through October, the District has collected approximately $1.7 million in the Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Fund. In early months, the fund was used largely for outreach, education and compliance expenses, but now that there is widespread support and understanding of the law, DDOE will shift its focus toward using the fund for projects that restore area waterways.
  • In the first half of the year, DDOE distributed a total of 42,460 bags to residents at community events, targeting low-income residents, students and seniors.
  • Anecdotal evidence from the city suggests that disposable bag usage has been reduced by as much as 50 percent.
  • Local environmental non-profits have reported a 60 percent reduction in the number of plastic bags collected at their watershed-wide clean-up days.
  • DDOE has hired a full-time inspector who has started conducting formal compliance inspections and, when necessary, issuing notices of violations that warn businesses to take corrective actions or face fines. DDOE is also encouraging individuals to assist enforcement efforts by reporting businesses that are not complying with the bag law. Citizens can call 311 to report a violator, or go online to the Bag Law Tip Line, found on DDOE’s webpage.
  • A new law became effective in August that furthers the requirements for retailers: All disposable paper or plastic bags from retail establishments selling food or alcohol will have to be 100 percent recyclable; must state, “Please Recycle This Bag” on the exterior of the bag; and must contain at least 40 percent post-consumer recycled content. DDOE is working with businesses to enforce the new regulations.
  • Over the next year, the bag law will help fund the Riversmart home and school programs and will help the District meet its goals in helping restore the Chesapeake Bay.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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