New bag fee prompts mixed reactions

What costs 5 cents but is still a tough sell?

In the District, plastic and paper bags.

Students and D.C. residents alike had mixed reactions to the new 5-cent fee on disposable bags, which began Jan. 1. Local storeowners have reported customers are refusing to take carryout bags in lieu of spending a nickel.

“Eight out of 10 people aren’t taking a bag now when they would before,” said Joe Audi, the manager of GW Deli.

Two signs, one by the door and the other at the register, reminded customers at the popular on-campus deli that the fee is D.C. law.

Hatchet Video

According to the legislation signed into law by Mayor Adrian Fenty in July 2009, a tax of 5 cents is levied on any customer requesting a disposable bag at District establishments selling food or alcohol.

For every nickel paid, 4 cents goes toward the Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Fund. Retailers keep the remaining penny.

Despite the fee, some students support the charge, calling it a logical and effective way to raise money for an important cause.

“[The fee] going toward the river cleanup is a great idea – putting it toward something tangible people can see,” said Tyler Kaczmarek, a freshman. He said he would support a larger fee for disposable bags and suggested people use cloth bags instead.

Shoppers who bring their own bags do not have to pay the fee, making reusable bags a more common sight at grocery stores and even local CVS Pharmacy stores.

CVS Director of Public Relations Mike DeAngelis declined to comment on customers’ reactions to the change, but said that the company changed its cashier system to give buyers a chance to ask for a plastic bag during the sale, rather than after the fact.

“Our goal was to make this an easy process for our customers, so we updated our point-of-sale system to give our employees the ability to add the bag fee to a transaction when appropriate so that customers are not required to take any additional steps when making a purchase,” he said in an e-mail. The company also donated 12,000 reusable bags to the District’s Department of Environment. They were dispersed at community events last month.

Cashiers at CVS declined to comment on the fee.

Charles Allen, chief of staff for D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells, D-Ward 6, called the drastic reduction in customers requesting bags for their purchases so far wonderful news. Wells introduced the bill for the fee that became law.

“The goal isn’t to generate money, the goal is to decrease the number of bags,” Allen said.

Allen said the District wants the fund to be at zero eventually, meaning fewer bags are in the Anacostia River. He said by mid-February there may be a dollar figure for the fund which will go toward cleaning the polluted Anacostia.

Wells’ office got information from a Harris Teeter grocery store Jan. 4 that said during the first weekend in January, roughly half of customers brought reusable bags to its stores.

Allen acknowledged there was still some confusion about the fee, but said it was natural and that it would take time for residents to get used to.

“It’s a very significant change for the city and residents,” he said.

One D.C. resident, Elizabeth Golden, said she supports the fee.

“Not only is it for a good cause but it encourages me to use reusable bags,” Golden said. “I completely support it.”

Others, however, expressed frustration with the fee.

“Charging 5 cents for a bag is annoying. Living in D.C. is already expensive and even though it’s 5 cents, it adds up.” said Jason Calabretta, a freshman.

Freshman Noah Gardy also disapproved of the fee, calling it a “cheap tax on poorer people who shop at places like 7-Eleven, where they predominantly use plastic bags.”

As the new year began, some retailers catered to those who opposed the fee by handing out free reusable bags to consumers all over the District. Trader Joe’s, for example, offers a complimentary reusable bag with each purchase.

“We always have encouraged customers to use their own bags even before the fee,” said one Trader Joe’s employee.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.