WASHINGTON — —
WASHINGTON — —
For many shoppers in the District of Columbia, the nickel fee has been an impetus to cut back on previously free store bags that all too often wind up in the trash - or littering nearby streams and trees.
While Baltimore's City Council is debating whether to levy a stiff fee of 25 cents on each plastic or paper bag - or to ban plastic entirely - the district has gotten its residents' attention, it seems, with a fee that might seem trivial to most shoppers. The measure's chief sponsor says food retailers say they're selling roughly 50 percent fewer plastic and paper bags than they used to give away before the fee took effect Jan. 1.
"We wanted to get into people's heads, not into their pockets, by having them make a decision at checkout: 'Do they need a bag with that?' " said Councilman Tommy Wells. (It is unclear how much a 25 cent fee would reduce bag usage in Baltimore.)
For Barbara Boyd, the answer to "paper or plastic" this week was neither. She carried her groceries away from the Safeway at Good Hope Marketplace in southeast Washington in one of the supermarket's black reusable bags, which cost 99 cents apiece.
"The only problem I have is forgetting my bags," said Boyd, who works for the Architect of the Capitol. She said lapses have prompted her to buy more reusable bags, and she now has six. But, she said, "I need them all."
Washington is the first major U.S. city to go through with a fee on disposable bags for food. Seattle adopted a 20 cent fee, only to have voters repeal it in a referendum. San Francisco is the only major municipality to have banned plastic merchandise bags, although they're also outlawed on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Government fees or restrictions on disposable bags have had a tough time taking hold. Plastic bag manufacturers and anti-tax activists, among others, say that litter should be tackled through voluntary recycling. And bag fees, opponents contend, are ill-disguised revenue grabs that hurt the poor by making them pay more for groceries and food.
The District of Columbia, however, appears to have overcome the traditional resistance with a relatively small fee that is earmarked for a popular environmental cause, plus a concerted public education campaign that includes merchants giving away free reusable bags and offering discounts to customers who use them.
"The fact that it has gone as well as it has says a lot not just about the residents, the customers, but a number of businesses really stepped forward to prepare their customers," Wells said.
Others say they don't mind paying the fee. Walking out of the Safeway, Stanford Gaskins carried his goods in a plastic bag, for which he'd paid an extra nickel.
"It's not that bad," the 56-year-old retiree said. "You really don't notice that, to be honest." Besides, he added, "if it's going to something worthwhile, I don't mind."
A portion of the fee goes back to merchants to cover their costs for collecting it and for giving customers incentives to bring their own bags. But the rest of the revenue is earmarked for cleanup of the Anacostia River. The tributary of the Potomac River, which drains the eastern half of the district, is fouled by sewage, pollutants and tons of trash. Plastic bags made up 47 percent of the debris littering the streams feeding into the river, according to a 2008 survey.
Restoring the river has become a popular rallying cry in the district, akin to saving the Chesapeake Bay. So proponents of the bag fee were able to blunt some of the criticism.
The Washington fee could raise $3.5 million in its first year - a relative drop in the bucket compared with the billions of dollars that officials say might be needed to restore the Anacostia. (Income projections for Baltimore's 25 cent fee range from $1.6 million to $6.4 million.)
But that amount is likely to decline if residents switch to shopping with their own bags. Wells, the fee's architect, says he's fine with that.
"We did not do this to raise revenue," he said. The fee was set at a nickel, he said, after learning that customers at IKEA stores had virtually stopped asking for plastic bags after the Scandinavian furniture chain started charging a nickel for each.
Merchants say there was confusion and grumbling when the fee took effect.
"There was a certain amount of pushback," said Greg Ten Eyck, spokesman for Safeway, which has 16 stores in the District of Columbia. "Over time, people have gotten used to it."
Smaller grocers also have made their peace with the fee.