DC Implements Successful Per-Bag Fee

In January 2010, the District of Columbia became the first city in the nation to implement a fee on single-use disposable plastic and paper bags. The legislation, the Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Act of 2009, requires stores that sell food to charge 5¢ for each plastic or paper bag distributed at the point of purchase. The store keeps 1-2¢ of the fee, and the remainder goes to a fund aimed at new efforts to restore and protect the Anacostia River. The fund also pays for distribution of free reusable bags to low-income, elderly, and otherwise needy residents.

The legislation has proven to be an incredible success. It has already significantly reduced trash littering the river and has generated more than a million dollars for river clean-up programs. Stores have reported 50-80% decreases in bag demand and this year’s 22nd Annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup (which took place 3 months after the fee took effect) reported a 66% reduction in plastic bags that make up the trash pulled from the Anacostia River. During the first six months, the DC Office of Tax & Revenue collected $1,068,100.

According to the Alice Ferguson Foundation (AFF), a leader of the Trash Free Potomac Watershed Initiative in the Washington, DC metro area, DC’s bag fee has been overwhelmingly effective in changing behavior, with 75% of District residents reporting a reduction in their bag usage; and businesses reporting drastic reductions in bag usage. AFF released data from its research on “Public Perceptions and Willingness to Address Litter in the District of Columbia” February 23rd, 2011. Click here for more information on AFF’s study.

The Anacostia River in Washington, DC, is one of two rivers in the United States impaired due to trash (the other is the Los Angeles River). Every year, 20,000 tons of trash enter the Anacostia. Plastic bags, bottles, wrappers and styrofoam make up 85% of the trash. In the tributaries of the Anacostia, such as Watts Branch, nearly 50% of the trash was found to be plastic bags. DC taxpayers spend over $50 million every year cleaning bags and trash out of the Anacostia River and off local streets.1

To reduce plastic trash entering the Anacostia River and its tributaries and to create a fund to clean up the River, DC City Councilmember Tommy Wells (Ward 6) crafted and introduced the “Anacostia River Clean-Up & Protection Act of 2009.” On June 16, 2009, the DC City Council unanimously passed the Act and on July 13th, DC Mayor Adrian Fenty signed it into law. The heart of the bill is requiring customers to pay a 5-cent fee on each “disposable carryout bag” they take to carry their purchases at grocery stores, drug stores, liquor stores, restaurants, and food vendors.

Key Facets of the Bill

  1. The fee applies to single-use plastic and paper bags. This was to prevent an increase of paper over plastic and to keep store costs down, while instead promoting bag avoidance and reusable bags.
  2. Fee applies to all retail establishments, large and small. Exemptions are allowed for newspaper bags, dry-cleaning bags, bakery items, pharmacy bags for prescription drugs, paper carryout bags that restaurants provide to customers to take food away from the retail establishment, reusable carryout bags, and bags provided to the consumer for the purpose of transporting a partially consumed bottle of wine.
  3. One cent of the fee goes back to stores to cover administration costs. Stores that offer a carryout bag credit program to its customers retain two cents of the fee.
  4. Collected fees will be deposited into a newly established Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Fund, which will be used for the following projects in the following order of priority:
  • A public education campaign to educate residents, businesses, and tourists about the impact of trash on the District’s environmental health;
  • Providing reusable carryout bags to District residents, with priority distribution to seniors and low-income residents;
  • Purchasing and installing equipment, such as storm drain screens and trash traps, designed to minimize trash pollution that enters waterways through storm drains, with priority given to storm drains surrounding the significantly impaired tributaries identified by the District Department of the Environment;
  • Creating youth-oriented water resource and water pollution educational campaigns for students at the District public and charter schools;
  • Monitoring and recording pollution indices;
  • Preserving or enhancing water quality and fishery or wildlife habitat;
  • Promoting conservation programs, including programs for wildlife and endangered species;
  • Purchasing and installing equipment designed to minimize trash pollution, including, recycling containers, and covered trash receptacles;
  • Restoring and enhancing wetlands and green infrastructure to protect the health of the watershed and restore the aquatic and land resources of its watershed;
  • Funding community cleanup events and other activities that reduce trash, such as increased litter collection;
  • Funding a circuit rider program with neighboring jurisdictions to focus river and tributary clean-up efforts upstream;
  • Supporting vocational and job training experiences in environmental and sustainable professions that enhance the health of the watershed;
  • Maintaining a public website that educates District residents on the progress of clean-up efforts; and
  • Paying for the administration of this program.

1 For data on trash in the Anacostia River watershed, see for instance, the Anacostia Watershed Society's Jim Connelly's March 19th, 2009 ppt at: http://www.mwcog.org/committee/committee/documents.asp?COMMITTEE_ID=24