Tuesday, November 16, 2010

An Evening with the Surfrider Foundation, A History of the DC Bag Tax from an Insider View

As a member of the greater DC community, I’m sure you’re aware of the plastic bag tax.  Since its implementation at the beginning of this calendar year, bag use has dropped from 22.5 million per month to 3 million per month and individual stores have estimated a 60 – 80% drop in use, while raising $1 million for cleanup efforts on the Anacostia River.

The Surfrider Foundation was one of the major organizations that lobbied for this tax, and so far it has been a wild success.  They supported this initiative based on an early study done by a few volunteers, who walked up and down the Anacostia River and recorded every piece of trash that they found.  They discovered that 47% of the trash consisted of plastic bags on land, while 20% of the trash was plastic bags in the river.  The Surfrider Foundation was founded by surfers who advocate for access to beaches and waves, but also for clean water, a human right that many people don’t have access to.

The bag tax has been a major success, seeing a 66% drop in the number of bags being cleaned up since last year, but not without critics.  It’s important to note that the issue was never about raising money, so it wasn’t a tax in the traditional sense, but it was more of a tax to reduce the number of plastic bags clogging up our rivers.  (Think of a “sin tax.”)  The tax ended up passing with less resistance than expected, especially when you consider the fact that more environmentally aware/progressive cities and states have failed...

The circularity of the DC bag tax and criticisms
The DC bag tax worked in part because it was circular and sustainable, with the benefits going back to the community most affected by plastic bag litter.  As you may know, all of the taxes collected from the bag tax go directly to cleaning the Anacostia River, now called the Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Act of 2009.  From an economics perspective, the bag tax makes sense.  It represents the true cost of a product and separates it out, allowing the consumer to decide whether they want to pay.  The cost of cleaning up plastic bags (and other trash) is enormous – much greater than the cost of the bag tax.

The major criticism came in the form of social justice.  Critics argued that this tax would adversely affect the poor more than anyone else – which was a major reason why a container deposit ban was rejected.  The initiative got a major boost from an unlikely source – an organization called Bread for the City.  Bread for the City is a non-profit organization that provides services such as food, clothing, medical care, and legal/social services for vulnerable residents in DC.

Bread for the City also runs a soup kitchen, which gave out its food in plastic bags.  They struggled with how to deal with the bag tax when they came up with an ingenious solution.  They got bags donated from corporations who regularly give these bags away at conventions and other events.  They encouraged the reuse of the bag by giving away a bag of vegetables, the most coveted foods, when people brought bags back.  This was the key step, as it eliminated the need to continuously buy more bags.  Overall, Bread for the City saved $4000 in the first half of the year because of the bag tax, savings originating from the fact that they didn’t need to buy plastic bags.

Why the tax has passed in DC where it failed in more environmentally aware cities
In Seattle, the plastic industry spent half a million dollars in opposition, going as far as hiring people who “didn’t support” the ban to wear protesting stickers and to sit in the court hearings.  On the contrary, the Surfrider Foundation spent $100 and met very little opposition.

Environmental communities in cities like Portland or states like California are baffled – how did DC get a plastic bag tax before they did?  How did DC become the first American city to have a plastic bag tax?  (Note: other cities have plastic bag bans, but no other city has a tax.)  Even California, with the support of the supermarket industry who favors a unified ban and consistency, has failed in their plastic bag management.  

Here are some reasons I thought of:
1) It certainly helped that 11 out of 13 councilmembers were sponsors of the bag tax.  Local support is a major factor in success.
2) This tax focused on all bags (i.e. paper and plastic), not just plastic bags.  This means that the paper or plastic industries couldn’t pit the tax against each other (at least not for this reason).
3) The tax had visible, local benefits.  All the money is going straight back to the local community.
4) Lawmakers tried to address the social aspect issue by making sure that some revenue from the taxes went to provide bags to seniors and low-income citizens.
5) The Anacostia really needs help: one of the few water systems in the entire country that doesn’t meet national water quality standards- people can’t safely drink the water or swim in the water, and animals can barely live in the water.

The next steps
If we held cleanups for everyday for the rest of our lives, it still wouldn’t be enough to keep the river clean.  The most important thing is to stop the source of the litter.

The Alice Ferguson Foundation conducted a study on who litters and why, found that a 40% of people are tolerant of litter, and then focused on the people who actually, actively litter (and admitted to it!) and conducted psychoanalysis studies on them.  They found that these people are of all class, religions, and races, though did find that young people litter more than other groups.  Psychoanalysis found that litterers lived in a “small” world.  Most readers of this blog would agree that they are responsible for a community, consisting of their immediate circle, school or place of work, city, or even larger communities.  Litterers, on the other hand, have a very small world, consisting of their house and perhaps their car.  They tend to lack control of things in their life, feel lost, and get a thrill from littering- knowing that it is illegal but that they are unlikely to be caught.

So the question remains, how do you reach these people?

The Wall Street Journal had a really interesting feature last month that addressed this issue directly claiming, “it isn’t financial incentives.  It isn’t more information.  It’s guilt.”    The WSJ claims that people stopped using bags not necessarily because of the cost, but because people now needed to ask for them, “right in front of their fellow customers.”  Tommy Walls (DC-Ward 6) said that “it’s more important to get in their heads than in their pocketbooks.”

More actions like the bag tax could serve as initiatives for environmental action.  Maryland and Hawaii are now copying the DC law, while Oregon and California are looking for a total ban.

To get more involved, visit the Surfrider Foundation DC Chapter’s website.


  1. I read the WSJ's article, too, and found it very interesting. I think there is definitely a mix between shame and economics in influencing people. I was thinking about that dynamic the other day when I was reading about the labels that the FDA is going to put on cigarette packages because, although I think the idea is nice, I don't find it effective. The reason why smoking rates have gone down so much over the past 15 years is a mix of (1) increased "sin taxes" ("economics") and (2) the fact that it is no longer viewed as a social default and that places to smoke have been limited ("shame"). A logic of well-being for either an individual, society, or the environment sadly doesn't work for people as well as it should, but those two seem to be most effective at reducing the rates of averse actions.

    Anyway, great post!

  2. Thanks for inviting the Surfrider Foundation to speak on campus! This was a very thorough post! Thanks!