D.C. First to Impose Fee to Use Disposable Plastic, Paper Bags

Consumers forced to go green, while critics assail the "tax."

WASHINGTON, Jan. 1, 2010— -- Residents and visitors to the nation's capital are about to find new meaning in what it means to "go green."

Starting today, the District of Columbia becomes the first major city in the nation to impose a surcharge on disposable paper and plastic bags commonly used at grocery and retail stores everywhere.

Customers who tote their food or liquor purchases home in the ubiquitous bags will now be required to pay 5 cents for each one they use. The fees will go to a fund for cleaning up the city's Anacostia River.

"I signed this law in July to cut down on the disposable bags that foul our waterways," D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty said last month. "We want everyone to know that you can save the river, and 5 cents, if you bring your own reusable bag to the store instead."

Many retailers are expected to offer a credit to customers who bring their own bags. Grocer Whole Foods, for example, already 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.

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."

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

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, Ill., 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.