February 22, 2011

The Bag Bill: One Year Later

Just over a year ago, D.C. became the first city in the country to successfully impose a “bag fee” – after several attempts in other cities (including liberal bastions like New York and Portland) failed in the face of lobbyist pressure. An insightful article in OnEarth magazine details the impressive campaign that went behind the bag bill victory, and Bread for the City is proud to have played a small role in the effort.

Our clients really do feel the pinch of an extra 5 cents at a register, so the burden of this legislation falls most heavily on them. But environmentalism isn’t just a pursuit of the privileged; our clients care about keeping their community clean as well. And together we are proving that conservation and fiscal prudence can go hand in hand.

In the year since the passage of the bag bill, Bread for the City has received tens of thousands of donated reusable bags to distribute through our pantry after the passage of the bill. The donations came by way of the DC government and several area grocery stores, including Safeway and Whole Foods, as well as private donations and community bag drives. And we are still collecting them! (Please contact Jeffrey Wankel at: jwankel@breadforthecity.org to organize a reusable bag drive in your community.)

In the meantime, it seems that the bag bill itself has been a success. Prior to the legislation, District grocery stores sent 22.5 million plastic bags out their doors every month. Now the number is closer to 3 million and expected to continue to decrease. Studies of the Anacostia and its tributary systems suggest that there are now 66% fewer plastic bags clogging up the river. (And plastic bags make up 20-45% of the total litter.)

Numbers like that sure do seem to indicate some big kind of shift in behavior and even consciousness. We think we can even sense a heightened awareness of conservation at work here at Bread for the City. I spent a few hours in the SE food pantry last week, talking with clients about the problems of non-biodegradable materials (it takes about 500 years for a plastic bag to decompose!). One woman told me that she’s noticed a clear change, and is proud to live “in a community that doesn’t have plastic trash flying at you in the wind.” Someone even asked us when the government is going to put a fee on bottles and cans.

Meanwhile, clients – especially our elders – definitely appreciate the reusable bag alternatives. We incentivize bag reuse by offering an additional item of produce from our pantry for each returned reusable bag, but one grandmother always comes back for new ones anyways. “My grandkids keep taking mine,” she told us.

In our view this speaks volumes to the way that public policy can foster an understanding between individual consumer actions and the greater well-being of our city. We encourage our neighbors in Maryland to follow suit with the similar legislation that has been put forth there. If some of the city’s most vulnerable people are not only “getting it” but eager to participate and even see the initiative expand, DC must be onto something!

In 2011, we hope to continue to provide reusable bags to our clients. Once again, to schedule an individual donation or plan a community bag drive, please contact Jeffrey Wankel at: jwankel@breadforthecity.org.

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