As 2010 began, Washington, D.C., shoppers celebrated by paying a new nickel fee each time they carry a disposable bag from the store.
It's a reasonable, reasonably inexpensive baby step toward curbing our dependence on environmentally unfriendly plastic sacks and the foreign oil required to produce them.
But here's a disturbing question: How on our increasingly polluted earth did the nation's capital wind up with a bag tax before Portland?
When D.C. council member Tommy Wells started talking about phasing out plastic bags last year, he told his staff to focus on two basic points: First, the debate should highlight a specific problem rather than the general damage plastic does. Second, the measure needed incentives for businesses, which tend to oppose anything that might scare customers or raise costs, to stay neutral.
The end result was the "Anacostia River Cleanup & Protection Act." Environmentalists are happy because 4 cents of every nickel charged goes to buy reuseable bags and clean the Anacostia, a nasty brown soup of pollution and neglect separating some of the city's poorest neighborhoods from tourist hot spots. Businesses went along because the council agreed to tax both plastic and paper -- more eco-friendly yet two to three times more expensive -- and give them that last 1 cent per bag to help cover administrative costs.
"My boss knew that to get this done, it had to be a full-scale political campaign with every possible objection mapped out," said Charles Allen, Wells' chief of staff. "We had to be methodical and purposeful."
In Portland, words such as "methodical" aren't always part of the political dialect. Our approach to the bag issue looks more plodding than purposeful.
Sam Adams, then a city commissioner, first suggested banning plastic bags three years ago after San Francisco did it. After a little research -- and angry calls from grocers -- he shifted to a 5- to 20-cent tax.
The idea hasn't progressed much since Adams became mayor last year, though he says his staff is researching bag fees, bag deposit programs and the plausibility of compostable plastic.
"This is still on my list to get done," Adams said. "I put it on hold for a while because of the recession. Right now I need to focus on unemployment, the high school dropout rate and the Portland Plan."
That sounds like rationalization, or maybe just recitation, by a mayor better at proposing controversial ideas than actually making them happen. For a spot as gaga over Mother Nature as Portland, "this is pretty low-hanging fruit," said environmentalist Stiv Wilson.
Yet if Washington, D.C., offers inspiration, Seattle's recent experience serves as ill omen.
Two years ago, Seattle leaders imposed a 20-cent fee on disposable bags. Last summer, Seattle voters killed it in a referendum orchestrated and bankrolled by the plastic industry's lobbying arm. The American Chemistry Council prefers to call those plastic bags "reuseable" rather than "disposable," in much the same way that environmentalists talk about "bag fees" rather than "bag taxes." The bottom line: We throw awaytoo much plastic.
"The lesson from Washington, D.C., is that this can be done," Adams said. "The lesson from Seattle is that we have to be ready to fight."
Environmentalists like Wilson, on a boat in the Atlantic Ocean this week looking firsthand at plastic pollution, say they think Portland will get something soon. "This has not dropped off the mayor's radar," he said. "It's too obvious."
Let's hope so. Portlanders should be able to celebrate the next new year by doing something smart, and comparatively cheap, for the environment.