Questions and Answers

What's the problem?

  • 20,000 tons of trash enters the Anacostia River each year.
  • A recent Department of Environment report identified plastic bags, Styrofoam, snack wrappers, bottles and cans as 85% of the trash in the River.
  • In the tributary streams, plastic bags dominate, making up nearly 50% of the trash.

What's the cost of doing nothing?

  • EPA is establishing a new Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) of allowable trash in the Anacostia River and violations are likely to occur with each rainfall event, potentially costing the District millions of dollars annually.
  • Each "free" bag that becomes litter already costs District residents:
    • District agencies already spend millions on trash rather than people.
    • DC WASA spends millions on Anacostia River trash removal, passed on to District rate payers in their monthly water bill.
  • Continued pollution of the Anacostia River.
  • Passing stewardship of the River on to our children and grandchildren, instead of creating an Anacostia River they can use and enjoy.

What's the proposal?

  • Place a 5-cent fee, paid by consumer, on all disposable recyclable plastic and paper carryout bags from Retail Food Establishment license holders (including grocery stores, food vendors, convenience stores, drug stores, restaurants) and Class A & B liquor licensees.
  • Ban non-recyclable plastic carryout bags; require that if a plastic carryout bag is offered, that it must be recyclable and clearly labeled as such.
  • The retail establishment will get 1 cent of fee returned tax exempt to the retailer.
  • Retailers who choose to offer a carryout bag credit program will retain an additional cent, for a total of 2 cents per bag.
  • The remaining fee per bag will be deposited into a new Anacostia River Cleanup & Protection Fund.

Why a Fee?

  • Charging for bags properly places the cost on those who use them
  • Provides incentive to bring reusable bags and to refuse bags for small, consumable purchases.

What about low-income residents and seniors?

Before the fee takes effect, the city will conduct an intensive outreach campaign that includes not only public education, but also provides reusable carryout bags to residents for free. The city will work with service providers to distribute multiple reusable bags to seniors and low-income households.

How will the Anacostia River Cleanup & Protection Fund be used?

The Fund will be used to support:

  • Continued public education campaign about the impact of trash on DC.s environmental health.
  • Continued distribution of additional reusable carryout bags to DC residents.
  • Environmental initiatives on the Anacostia River, such as the purchase and installation of garbage traps; installation of wetlands and other plant life to protect the health of the River; funding community cleanup events; etc.
  • Efforts with neighboring jurisdictions to focus cleanup efforts upstream.

Why not expand the fee to all bags, including those provided by Macy.s and other non-food retailers?

The DDOE report indicated most of the bag litter in the Anacostia appears to be related to consumable purchases. For example, when someone buys a soda and a bag of chips, it goes in a carryout bag; that person only has two hands: one for the soda, one for the chips. The bill, in part, attempts to address where that bag goes when the person walks from the store, consuming their purchase.

How will this have any real effect?

  • DDOE report estimates that placing a small fee on all "free" bags could remove 47% of the trash from the tributaries and 21% from the river's main stem.
  • The fee is a relatively low-cost incentive to encourage shoppers to use reusable bags, to refuse bags for single item purchases, and to encourage cashiers to ask whether a bag is even needed. Precedent exists that a small fee can dramatically change consumer behavior.
  • Ireland was the first to implement a fee to change consumer behavior and saw a 94 percent reduction in disposable bag use within the first year.
  • When IKEA started charging 5 cents per bag in March 2007, consumption dropped 92 percent in the first year alone. As part of the project, the company dropped its signature blue reusable bag price from 99 cents to 59 cents, and blue bag sales increased by more than 100 times. By October 2008, the company decided to stop offering disposable plastic bags altogether.

If plastic bags are the problem in the Anacostia, why a fee on paper too?

When it comes to environmental impact, the endless question of paper v. plastic is one that should be answered "neither." Both have significant environmental costs and putting a fee on plastic carryout bags alone would likely increase the use of paper bags, negating any environmental benefit and adding considerable costs to our local businesses (as paper bags cost up to five times as much as plastic bags). Placing a fee on both moves everyone toward reusable bags, which is a better solution for the Anacostia River, the environment, and our local businesses.

How are other jurisdictions addressing this problem?

  • New York City: In Nov. 2008, Mayor Bloomberg proposed charging shoppers 6 cents per bag, with one cent returned to the store. In February, the bill as introduced includes a 5-cent fee and no return to the retailer.
  • Seattle: In July 2008, the Seattle City Council approved a 20-cent "green fee" on paper and plastic bags, which is expected to raise approximately .5 million annually. Implementation is pending a 2009 ballot initiative.
  • Ireland: In 2001, Ireland adopted a "PlasTax" fee, currently 22 Euro cents (34 U.S. cents) per bag. Usage dropped more than 90 percent.

What about the people who reuse their disposable plastic bags? Won.t they be buying more plastic under this law?

While it may be true that people will buy more plastic garbage bags than before, those bags are typically disposed of properly, while the smaller carryout bags often are not. A reduction in the number of carryout bags distributed by retail establishments will reduce the number of bags that litter the Anacostia River and cost DC taxpayers money to clean up.

Aren't reusable bags made of plastic too? Are they really more environmentally friendly?

A 2003 study found that reusable bags have the least environmental impact, largely due to the small number of bags consumed per year. The study evaluated manufacture, transportation, use and disposal of carryout bags and found that the greatest environmental benefits are achieved when replacing disposable bags with reusable bags.

Aren't plastic bottles and cans the largest source of litter? Or food wrappers?

Plastic bags dominate the tributary streams, making up 47 percent of all trash; in the Anacostia River's main stem, plastic bags make up 21 percent of all trash. Bottles & cans comprise 14 percent in the tributaries, and 25 percent in the main stem. Food wrappers make up 24 percent in the tributary streams and 26 percent in the main stem. These are significant numbers, but overall plastic bags are the most prevalent and cause considerable damage, not just as litter the River, but they also clog stormwater drains and damage equipment.

Will the people who litter their carryout bags even care about this fee?

The fee is small, but small fees elsewhere have provided enough of an incentive for consumers to rethink whether they need a bag at all.

  • Ireland was the first to implement a fee to change consumer behavior and saw a 94 percent reduction in disposable bag use within the first year.
  • When IKEA started charging 5 cents for bags in March 2007, consumption dropped 92 percent in the first year alone.

Why not institute voluntary efforts and push recycling?

DC, like many cities, has had recycling programs for years. It makes a small impact, but the city has to pay to have these items recycled and we still have a polluted and dirty river.

Why should I pay for something I've always received for free?

The carryout bags aren't really free. They cost the retailer and they pass those costs on the customer. Too often, a "free" bag becomes someone else's litter. The uses our tax dollars to pay for litter clean up and removal. DC WASA has to remove the bags and other debris out of the Anacostia River, and those costs are passed on to rate payers.

Why is this a priority now?

Taking charge of the stewardship of the Anacostia River will result in a neighborhood asset for all our residents. A healthy river is also a draw for economic development, providing increased opportunities for all communities surrounding the river. Finally, we must begin stewardship now, or we pass the responsibility and the burden to our children and grandchildren.

Sign the petition now!