Nickel Power: Plastic Bag Use Plummets in Nation's Capital

Bag tax in nation's capital leads to 86 percent drop in disposable bag use.

December 31, 2009, 1:38 PM

WASHINGTON, March 30, 2010— -- The nation's capital is witnessing the power of a nickel.

Use of disposable paper and plastic bags in the District of Columbia has plummeted 86 percent since the city first began imposing a fee on their use Jan. 1.

Customers who tote their food or liquor purchases home in store-provided bags are now charged 5 cents for each one they use. The fees go to a fund for cleaning up the city's Anacostia River.

"I'm thrilled with these initial results," said D.C. Council member Tommy Wells.

Fewer than 3 million disposable bags were sold in January 2010, according to a report by the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue. That's down from an estimated 22.5 million bags per month used and disposed of by residents in previous months.

"Not only are we reducing the number of disposable bags entering our environment, but we also have new resources flowing to help with the cleanup and restoration of the Anacostia River," Wells said.

The report shows the city collected roughly $150,000 in January for the river cleanup fund. The bag fee is estimated to raise $10 million over four years.

The seemingly small extra charge at checkout has sparked what many are calling a "green revolution" across the city, as consumers adapt to more environmentally conscious ways.

Checkout aisles are lined with assortments of reusable bags from the inexpensive to designer fashion, and commuters are regularly seen carrying the bags tucked under arm or stuffed in their backpacks and briefcases on their way to work.

Many retailers now offer credits to customers who bring their own bags. Grocer Whole Foods, for example, gives shoppers a nickel for each bag they bring in and has discontinued use of plastic bags.

While the District's bag tax law is the first of its kind, other states and municipalities have imposed outright bans on plastic bags or mandated that retailers collect them for recycling.

San Francisco, Calif., became the first U.S. city to impose an outright ban on plastic bags in 2007, and Oakland and Malibu soon followed suit. In June 2009, the North Carolina legislature banned their use in the Outer Banks.

D.C. Only U.S. City to Tax Grocery Bags

China banned plastic bags in January 2008 and Bangladesh has outlawed them since 2002, which might come as a surprise, given that neither country is known for its progressive environmental policies.

"You think you're getting those bags for free," Stephanie Barger, executive director of the Earth Resource Foundation, told ABC News. "But in nature, nothing is free. For 30 minutes of use, we end up having to destroy rainforests in Indonesia to get the natural gas, and dealing with the politics of the Middle East to get oil, and then we still have the problem of waiting more than 100 years for the bags to break down."

But in many cities -- including New York, Seattle, Philadelphia and Baltimore -- voters have rejected attempts to impose bans or fees. Critics of such measures say they would add hundreds of dollars a year to families' grocery bills and amount to a tax.

"Consumers don't need to bear a tax in order to help protect the environment," said Progressive Bag Affiliates director Shari Jackson. "Plastic bags don't belong in roadways, they belong in the recycling bin."

Some parts of the country have attempted to find a middle ground between a tax and a ban, opting to mandate plastic bag recycling as a first step towards "going green."

California, New York and Delaware currently require retailers who distribute plastic carryout bags to provide recycling bins to collect used ones inside their stores. Chicago and Madison, Wisc., have similar laws.

Some 89 billion plastic bags, sacks and wraps are used each year in the U.S., according to the American Chemistry Council. In 2007, 830 million pounds of those materials were recycled, representing a roughly 25 percent increase over 2005.

ABC News' Russell Goldman contributed to this report.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events