Disposable Bag Fee Hits Low-Income Residents In the Pocket

The Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Act. Big news in the District last June and again now, as the proverbial hits the fan.

Brief review: The bill the DC Council passed established a 5-cent fee on virtually every plastic or paper shopping bag used to pack customers’ purchases at retail food establishments, including grocery stores, drug stores, convenience stores, street vendors and liquor stores.

The intent, as signaled by the name of the bill, was to secure funds to clean up the Anacostia River and protect it from further trash build-up. The funds were to come from the disposable bag fees, though retailers could retain 1 cent per bag–or 2 cents if they offered customers a 5-cent credit for each carryout bag they provided.

Lots of enthusiasm for this legislation. The Council vote was unanimous. Councilmember Jack Evans, not usually a fan of new taxes, said the bill was a “first step to address” the fact that “our country’s becoming inundated with plastic bags and bottles.” Mayor Fenty called plastic bags “a menace to our waterways” and said the legislation would “have measurable impact almost immediately.”

Some, however, raised concerns about the impacts on low-income residents. These were generally discounted–in part because the most vocal source was the plastic bag industry. Besides, Councilmember Tommy Wells, who co-sponsored the legislation, pledged an ongoing supply of free reusable bags for distribution to those for whom every penny matters.

Fast forward to January 1, the day the fee kicked in.

The city had committed to providing 122,000 bags for low-income residents and seniors. News4’s Tom Sherwood reports that it had distributed 20,000 by December 29. An additional 80,000 were on order but not expected for weeks. Nothing about the 22,000 bags the city will still be short.

Bread for the City, which had planned to serve as a free bag distribution center, has posted a plea for donations because the city didn’t come through. But who knows how much its clients and other poor people will have to spend, either on bag fees or on reusable bags–even if the city gets the promised bags out the door by month’s end?

I’ve done a little back-of-the-envelope calculation. My husband and I bring home a minimum of six full bags from our weekly grocery shops. That’s at least three bags per person. According to the U.S. Census Bureau estimates, there were about 96,640 District residents below the federal poverty line in 2008. There are probably more now.

So it would seem that at least 290,000 bags would be needed to protect the poorest D.C. residents from ongoing bag fees–or a minimum initial expenditure of $4.20 (99 cents per reusable bag, plus tax). And what about next year and the year after that? Reusable bags wear out. They get contaminated by leaky food packages. They get lost or stolen.

Yes, the District is legally obliged to clean up the Anacostia. And reusable bags reduce other pressures on the environment. But did anyone really think through what the bag tax would do to the budgets of the poorest households–or what would be entailed in delivering effective relief?

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6 Responses to Disposable Bag Fee Hits Low-Income Residents In the Pocket

  1. [...] & Policy notes the impact on poor D.C. residents, who haven't gotten the 122,000 free bags promised by the government. And [...]

  2. if you bring six bags home on an avg. shopping trip, save them, and reuse them the next time, you’ll have spent 30 cents. If you scavenge them from various places to begin with, maybe they cost nothing.

  3. Kathryn Baer says:

    That was my initial solution, Richard. Then I took advantage of Giant’s free bag give-away. But I wasn’t much concerned with what the bag fee would cost me personally. I could certainly afford thirty cents every once and awhile to replace worn out and/or dirty bags, plus some extra nickels for cases where I didn’t plan to be shopping. My concern is that even small amounts like these have a real cumulative impact on the budgets of people who are barely making do, if that. I’m also concerned that the District made a promise and then didn’t deliver.

  4. Rogue Teacher Believes says:

    No one gave any thought to the bag ‘tax’ or ‘fee’. My question is why are hardware stores and Morton’s exempt – but places that sell books and videos are not,even though the candy/food accounts for a small portion of their revenue?

  5. JeffConn says:

    Or they could buy a handful of cloth bags ONCE and never have to pay the tax ever again. And the only people who will pay this tax are the lazy or those who have enough money to not give a crap about this extra tax. I’ve gotten cloth bags from different places for 99 cents a pop, and have been given free bags from some retailers.

  6. Anita says:

    @JeffConn:
    I’m not lazy, but when I get a phone call from work about groceries we need from the store before I come home [read inclement weather forecast], I have to buy bags, because I’m not thinking about bringing bags to work when I’m rushing to get to my son to school so that I can go to work. We have between 10 and 15 cloth bags…at home.

    @Kathryn Baer:
    If Fenty and the DC Council are serious about environmental issues, they would do well to fix the policies that allow DC slumlords to let their buildings rot until longtime residents are too sick (sometimes literally) and tired to continue living in said properties–which are then renovated and repackaged as luxury dwellings the uptick of which depletes the affordable housing stock.

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