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

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.