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US Capital Levies 'Bag Tax' to Clean Up Local River

Grocery bags like these are subject to a five cent bag tax in Washington, DC
Grocery bags like these are subject to a five cent bag tax in Washington, DC

Countless factors affect the health of our environment. And the things we take from nature may not harm it as much as the things we add to it. For years, many people have harmed the environment by littering it with their throw-away plastic grocery bags. But in the U.S. capital, a so-called “bag tax” has changed the way many people do business and the way business affects the environment.

Spend a day on the Anacostia River, which flows through southeast Washington into the more-famous Potomac River, and you may now see some water through the trash that typically clogs this urban waterway.

“The Anacostia is dubbed one of the 10 most polluted rivers in America," said Washington DC Council Member Tommy Wells. “I wanted something that got into people’s heads; not their pockets, which is why we came up with a nickel.”

Businesses in the U.S. capital now charge shoppers five cents, a nickel, for each disposable plastic bag. It is officially called the “Anacostia River Clean Up Fund,” and the nickels help pay to clean Washington’s “other” river. If you use your own bag, you save a nickel.

Has the so-called “bag tax” helped? Bret Bolin of the Anacostia Watershed Society, a watch dog group trying to protect the river, said “In just 3 and a half months of the bag fee, people were already reporting that they were seeing a lot less (fewer) bags in the river and at cleanup sites than in past years.”

“There was a 60 percent reduction of the amount of bags that were pulled out of the river," said Wells.

The local government estimates that stores distributed nearly 300 million bags in 2009. "They were estimating something like 55 million being distributed in 2010, which is an 80 per cent reduction, which is amazing," said Bolin

At five cents per bag, the River Cleanup fund raised nearly 2 million dollars in its first 10 months. And a portion of these fees subsidizes the distribution of reusable bags to those who can’t afford them.

“It’s been a complete success," said Wells.

But not everyone agrees.

“Ninety percent of people complained, and they don’t want to buy the bag," said Aruna, a shopkeeper.

“Customers don’t like it at all, added another shopkeeper named Juan.

Other critics say in these hard economic times, any tax is unfair to the poor and could cost jobs in the plastic business. But many people still favor the idea.

Supporters say reducing bag use is the only permanent solution. “You can’t keep pulling trash out of the river forever," said Bolin.

“Our city is so much more beautiful now that we don’t have these bags blowing in our trees and our environment," said Wells.

There is still much work to be done to clean and maintain the District of Columbia. But lawmakers are making change in that direction, five cents at a time.