- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The District of Columbia moved Tuesday to impose a tax on the use of paper and plastic shopping bags, catapulting the nation’s capital to the forefront of the “green” retail movement while raising concerns that the new levy would impose an economic burden on the poor.

The D.C. Council unanimously approved legislation banning the use of disposable, non-recyclable plastic bags and assessing consumers a 5-cent fee per recyclable paper and plastic bag used to haul away purchases at places such as grocery and convenience stores.

The city’s effort is expected to earn final approval during a council session June 16, and a spokeswoman said Mayor Adrian M. Fenty would sign the bill, which coincides with movements elsewhere in the country to enact similar measures.

“Wherever the fault lies, the fact of the matter is our country’s becoming inundated with plastic bags and plastic bottles,” said council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat. “This is a first step to try to address that issue.”

The Seattle City Council last summer approved a 20-cent fee on disposable bags at grocery and some other stores, but the issue is scheduled to be brought before voters later this year after opponents gathered enough signatures to bring it to a referendum.

San Francisco in 2007 enacted a ban on plastic bags in grocery stores. In New York City, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg recently backed off a bag-tax budget proposal.

Lawmakers in California, Connecticut, Maine and Texas also have debated bag-tax proposals.

Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat, introduced legislation in April that would place a 5-cent tax on “single-use” bags between 2010 and 2015 and a 25-cent tax on them after Jan. 1, 2015. The federal legislation was referred to the House Ways and Means Committee and the House Natural Resources Committee.

The District’s bill, if passed, would not take effect until January. Its chief author is council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat.

The bill would allow affected retailers to keep 1 cent of the bag fee and place 4 cents into a fund targeting cleanup of the Anacostia River, which officials say is littered with 20,000 tons of trash each year.

A carryout bag credit program would credit customers at least 5 cents for each bag they provide and let them keep 2 cents per bag sold.

D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi has said the bag-tax measure would bring the city $3.6 million in fiscal 2010 revenue and $9.5 million between fiscal 2010 and 2013, along with reducing the use of disposable bags by 50 percent in its first year of implementation.

Officials noted that the Swedish retailer IKEA implemented a 5-cent fee on plastic bags in 2007, resulting in a 90 percent reduction in their use.

Opponents of the measure include Ward 7 resident Trish Chittams, who said she thinks the money generated by the tax will diminish and the river won’t be cleaned up, especially without enlisting Maryland’s help.

“I’m going to shop in Maryland and Virginia, so not only am I not going to help but my tax dollars are going to go into Maryland and Virginia,” she said. “You’re kind of discouraged with them because they don’t give a hoot and a holler about the people.”

George Franklin, head of the Covenant Food Pantry and coordinator of the Ward 8 Food Pantry Collaborative, said many D.C. residents would be surprised by the new fee, particularly during difficult economic times.

He said his pantry uses bags donated after church members’ trips to the grocery store and is worried the new fee will diminish his supply.

“Members of the council are the only people who think its a good idea to impose a new useless tax on people in the middle of a recession,” Mr. Franklin said. “This just is not the right time for this.”

The legislation directs city officials to conduct a public information campaign about disposable bag reduction and form a public-private partnership to provide reusable carryout bags to city residents, particularly seniors and low-income households.

Mr. Franklin called the logistics of distributing free cloth bags “daunting” and expressed concern about what happens when the bags need to be replaced.

The measure does have the support of Bread for the City, the District’s largest food pantry.

Bread for the City spokesman Greg Bloom said that helping the poor and the economy can go hand in hand, and “we’ve been told that there will be a supply of bags available to us.”

Council member Kwame R. Brown - at-large Democrat who attached an amendment to the bill that would allow residents to purchase commemorative license plates to help fund the river cleanup efforts - acknowledged that 5 cents per bag could add up for some residents, but stressed the green impact of the tax.

“The No. 1 objective is to try to get the Anacostia River clean …,” Mr. Brown said. “You try to find a way and you try to be helpful to everyone.”

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