Madeline Twomey: Using the bag tax for street sweeping

As of January 1, the District requires stores that sell food or liquor to charge 5 cents per plastic bag used by customers. Four cents go to the Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Fund, and the remaining penny is given to the retailer.

Mayor Adrian Fenty, however, announced earlier this month that he’s hoping to allocate some of the money raised by the bag fee to a street-sweeping program in his budget for 2011, initiating conversation about how the money might be used.

Though councilmember Tommy Wells, D-Ward 6, opposes Fenty’s allocation of the bag fee funds, keeping D.C.’s streets clean will ultimately benefit the city and the Anacostia River. The Anacostia is D.C.’s “other” river, which runs through Southeast D.C. and is highly polluted due to both an antiquated sewer system and rapid development around the river. The fee, which initially sparked controversy in D.C., has already seen an incredible amount of success – reducing plastic bag purchases by 50 to 80 percent.

Roughly 20 percent of all refuse that ends up in the Anacostia River is composed of plastic bags, according to statistics from the D.C. Department of the Environment. This is mainly due to water runoff, and according to the Environmental Protection Agency, street sweeping reduces not only trash but also sediment, pollutants and virtually invisible trace metals that would otherwise end up in our rivers. If we use the bag fee money to remove bags (and other trash) from our streets, we’re stopping the problem before it starts. Why would we wait until after the fact to spend the money on fishing the trash out of the river?

It’s unfortunate that Wells, whose ward encompasses parts of the river, is against the proposal. The argument made by Wells is that the legislation passed to introduce the bag fee clearly stated that the money raised would go toward cleaning the Anacostia River. Street sweeping is not the same as sifting through trash in the river. But if street sweeping can help reduce trash on the ground, it’s ultimately a good idea.

In addition, street sweeping will also cosmetically benefit the city. Even if this were the only benefit, it is certainly a nice byproduct of street sweeping.

It may be campaign season in D.C., with a tight race for Democrats in the mayoral primary in September, but let’s leave the Anacostia River out of it. The issue of street sweeping and cleaning the river shouldn’t be turned into a campaign tactic. The mayor’s opponent, GW alumnus Vincent Gray, for example, should not fight Fenty on this. Save the debate for after the elections, and remember the overall goal: cleaning D.C.’s “forgotten” river.

The writer, a junior majoring in political communication, is a Hatchet columnist.

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