Making the Bag Fee Work for the Environment AND Low-Income Residents

April 21st, 2009 | by Andrea Northup, intern

A bill in the DC Council that would set a 5-cent fee on disposable plastic and paper bags is getting a lot of attention these days. It would apply to bags used at grocery stores, drug stores, liquor stores, restaurants and food vendors and would ban disposable bags that cannot be recycled.

The goal is to reduce the copious amounts of paper and plastic bag waste in and around the Anacostia river watershed. But legitimate concerns are being raised about the burden it might place on low and moderate income shoppers in the District.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute hasn’t taken a position on this bill. But we think the impact that it would have on low-income people is important and should be addressed.

Based on estimates of current plastic and paper bag use, DC households could expect to pay between $2.50 and $5 per month in fees if their bag-use behavior doesn’t change. But of course the goal of the fee is to change behavior – and similar measures have proven effective (Ireland’s plastic bag tax reduced use by 90% in just three months!) Assuming a 50% reduction in bag use, the cost per household would be between $0.63 and $1.25 per month.

To make sure low-income residents can keep their costs down, they’ll need access to reusable bags. The DC bill would use some of the fee revenues to provide re-usable bags to seniors and low-income communities. This outreach must be carried out effectively. If it is, households could actually even benefit – since some stores offer rebates for customers who provide their own bags, and the bill creates incentives for more stores to do so.

Another concern that has been raised is the potential impact of the fees on food banks and food pantries that use bags to distribute food. But the fee only applies to bags distributed by a store at the point of sale, so donated or distributed bags would not be affected.

It’s worth noting that low-income residents may support bag fees despite the strain they might place on their wallets. In a Seattle survey, 88% of respondents with incomes below $25,000 were willing to pay extra for plastic bags.

With the goal to clean up the Anacostia and surroundings, a bag fee could adversely affect low-income residents. Much of the effects could be mitigated, however, through strong efforts to inform residents, hand out re-usable bags, and work out other kinks as the bill moves forward.

19 Responses to “Making the Bag Fee Work for the Environment AND Low-Income Residents”

  1. Coleman says:

    The United States, relative to other similarly developed countries, has the LOWEST consumption taxes. There’s definitely room for tweaking here and a plastic bag tax is a great place to start. Granted, this tax, like all sales/consumption taxes, is regressive and, in terms of “% of income devoted to consumption taxes,” it will definitely affect lower-income persons more than persons who purchase a lot of plasma screen TVs (that do not fit inside plastic bags). But the extra revenue generated from this tax, the behavior changes it encourages, and the sheer waste it will reduce make this a good policy.

    I think it would also be helpful if reusable bags were available for purchase at more retail outlets and not just big chain grocery stores.

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  16. Lou says:

    I recently actually read the law and noted that the river act, and ironically it defines common woven and non-woven polypropylene bags as disposable and actually outlaws them. Since they are not made of cloth and are made of plastic and intended for multiple uses but aren’t “least 2.25 millimeters thick”, they are now defined as disposable.

    Most reusable bags at sold stores as well as the ones being hand out by the city are plastic, woven and non-woven polypropylene (WPP/NWPP) bags and way under 0.5 mm thick.

    When a reached out to a reusable bag maker they don’t even design bags based on thickness, nor can they control material thickness.

    Oh well…this will be interesting on January 1st since the laws reads like a store cant even distributer or sell a bag less than 2.25mm thick unless it his made of polyethelene (PE).

    How long before the city realizes that they never made a clear definition of reusable bags and actually made them illegal? Basically each store selling WPP/NWPP “reusable” bags should be fined $500/day under the law.

    I kid you not check it out!

  17. [...] ~The DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s blog had a nice follow-up to the stories we’ve been running about the Bag Bill. Though DCFPI has not formally endorsed the bill, they do point out that in Seattle (where a similar bill was passed) 88% of respondents with incomes under $25,000 told pollsters they were willing to pay a little extra for bags. Hopefully some person or group will field a similar poll in DC and dismiss the misconception that low-income residents care less about cleaning up their community than their more affluent neighbors. [...]