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How Far Would You Go for 5 Cents?

• January 26, 2010 • 5:40 PM

Charging a nickel for every bag at the grocery store has created ‘a behavioral economist’s dream.’

Washington is nearly a month into an intriguing social experiment, one that — to judge by local reaction — is having a far greater impact on individual lives than any major policy shifts in health care, job creation or banking regulation.

Thousands of people have altered long-held behavior overnight. Businesses are operating differently. The way people eat, shop and interact with each other has changed. And hundreds have been moved to fiery message-board debates about the proper role of government and at what point it’s gone too far.

The catalyst: Residents of the district now have to pay 5 cents per bag — paper or plastic — at the grocery store.

D.C. is the first city in the country to try such a tax (San Francisco banned plastic bags outright in 2007), and the intent seems rational, even if the reaction hasn’t always been so. The law, unanimously passed last summer by the City Council, is an attempt at cleaning up the Anacostia River that frames some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

According to river advocates, disposable bags account for 47 percent of the trash in the Anacostia’s tributaries. Cutting down on bag use should, in theory, cut down on bags floating in the river. And proceeds from the tax — minus the 1 cent per bag that stays with the shopkeepers — go to the Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Fund.

Residents, though, have reacted with a passion that seems outsized to the pocket change involved, and the law’s implementation has brought a series of side effects other cities mulling such a bag policy would be wise to consider (or chuckle over).

People who’ve long considered themselves eco-friendly for reusing plastic bags now wonder how they’re supposed to pick up after their dogs. Shoppers who refuse to pay the tax — either on budget or principle — have created a new D.C. spectacle: residents wandering the sidewalks with armfuls of food, as if they were looters. And then there is the sudden awkward loss of privacy that comes with bagless-ness.

“Now you can see what people buy,” one shopper told The Washington Post. “They’ve got a carton of milk, a can of Spam. You wonder, ‘What’s he going to do with that Spam?’”

In the strangest cases, some residents are driving to Virginia to avoid the bag tax — even though the higher Virginia sales tax more than wipes out any 5-cent savings.

As Duke professor Dan Ariely told the Post: “This is like a behavioral economist’s dream.” If ever there was an argument against the rational self-interest of consumers, this is it. People everywhere are going well out of their way to avoid dealing with the law, all because the alternatives — giving the government 5 cents or remembering to bring your own bag — are unthinkable.

But whether people are using fewer bags because they’re bringing their own or because they’re now shopping outside the city all together, the results have been striking. Grocers anecdotally report they’re going through half as many bags as they used to.

Inside restaurants, you now also have to pay for your doggy bag. Same with take-out and fast-food joints. The law applies to any type of retail shop that sells food, although this sweeping definition has created some more confusion. Wondered one proprietor in The Wall Street Journal: Does it count if you have an adult-toy store that sells, among other things, edible body frosting?

Critics of the whole idea have focused on the tax’s inherent contradiction: If it succeeds in getting fewer people to use plastic and paper bags, then it won’t raise much money for the Anacostia cleanup fund. And if it does raise a lot of money, that means the tax hasn’t succeeded in altering the long-term behavior that necessitates the cleanup in the first place. Officials have said they’ll be happy with first outcome, and they’ve projected that the windfall from the tax will decrease in each of the coming years.

Another measure of success may be if other cities follow suit. So far, 5 cents per bag appears to be the upper limit of what people will put up with, even begrudgingly. Voters in Seattle shot down a 20-cent bag tax. The Colorado legislature gave up on a 6-cent tax. And New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has had a hard time floating the idea of a nickel.

To Washington’s credit, it may help that the city has tied the tax to something a little less ephemeral than helping the environment, or reducing consumption.

As the catchy slogan says: Skip the bag, the save the river.

Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

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