Changing Behaviors

By Lina Younes

At the beginning of the year, the District Bag Law went into effect in Washington, DC which required businesses that sell food or alcohol to charge consumers 5 cents for each disposable paper or plastic carryout bag. Of those revenues, 3-4 cents were destined for a new Anacostia River Protection Fund. The District of Columbia’s Department of the Environment (DDOE) has been administering the fund and has conducted a public awareness campaign to reduce litter in Washington, DC and clean up the river.

It’s interesting to note that at the beginning of the year many people were complaining about this new tax. Personally, while I support cleaning our waterways, I opted for skipping the bag on numerous occasions in DC especially for small purchases because I didn’t want to pay the 5 cents. So, now, nearly a year later, I was very curious to see the outcomes of the Bag Law. I contacted the DC Department of the Environment and would like to share the information with you.

Anecdotal evidence during the first year since this law went into effect points to a 50% reduction in bag usage in DC stores. Furthermore, non-profits, such as the Alice Ferguson Foundation, have reported a 60% reduction in the number of plastic bags collected at their watershed wide clean-up days. Furthermore, DDOE has collected $1,528,195.84 during the first three quarters of the year primarily through the 5 cent fee on disposable bags. According to DDOE, as DC residents become more aware of the new law, the need for public outreach and reusable bag giveaways will diminish. As the program moves to its second phase, funding will be destined to other infrastructure efforts, such as the design and installation of water quality structures that will remove trash and sediment from stormwater runoff, constructing green roofs and other water quality issues. The law includes other enforcement elements to ensure businesses are complying with the law.

Whether people have decided to use more reusable carryout bags to save the environment or to avoid paying the 5 cent fee is hard to tell. Nonetheless, the result has been positive in the sense that consumers are changing their behavior and benefitting water quality. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

About the author: Lina Younes has been working for EPA since 2002 and chairs EPA’s Multilingual Communications Task Force. Prior to joining EPA, she was the Washington bureau chief for two Puerto Rican newspapers and she has worked for several government agencies.

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