Monday, January 25, 2010

Washington D.C.'s Beautiful Bag Tax

Washington D.C. instituted a 5-cent tax on disposable bags—both paper and plastic—on New Year's Day. Now, when you go to the grocery store in the District, you pay a little extra if you get a new tree- or oil-based bag rather than bring your own.

There seems to be lots of grumbling from the locals about what a hassle/expense the tax is, but the thing is: It's been wildly successful as a waste-cutting measure. Store managers are reporting that the number of bags they buy and use has dropped by around 50 percent. They should be happy about that because it cuts their costs. The tax will also generate an estimated $3.6 million in revenue for the District.

Many commenters are taking this as an example of how the difference between a free bag and a 5-cent bag can be huge, psychologically speaking. It's also interesting to contrast this with the proposed 20-cent bag tax that was rejected by voters in Seattle (would a smaller tax have passed?) and the plastic bag ban in San Francisco, which did more to reduce bag use, but generated no revenue and may have increased grocery prices for everyone.

I'm glad it's working, but I'm still slightly baffled that so many people need a tax to prompt them to rethink whether getting a disposable bag with every little purchase makes sense. I'm bummed when I forget to bring a reusable bag to the grocery store, not because of a tax (there isn't one in Los Angeles), because using a plastic bag means unnecessary production and waste. I get that economics tells us we're all supposed to be utility-maximizing rational choosers, but for me being generally resource smart and taking care of the planet actually feels better than not caring.

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