Plastic Bag Bans Show that Change Is Possible -- and Easy

Plastic Bag Bans Show that Change Is Possible -- and Easy

It was a beautiful day for a ballgame on Monday at Nationals Park. President Obama threw out the first ball (to cheers), temperatures climbed close to 80 degrees, the game was a sellout and the ballpark overlooking Washington D.C.'s other river -- the Anacostia -- never looked better.

Here's the view from my perch in the upper deck.

Nationals Stadium

About that river: The Anacostia River flows for about eight miles from Prince George's County, Maryland, into your nation's capital, where it empties into the Potomac. It has a troubled past and a bright future, as I learned recently on a boat trip along the Anacostia organized by my synagogue, Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation, and led by our eco-friendly rabbi, Fred Dobb.

Jim Foster, the president of the Anacostia Watershed Society, told us that dumping of raw sewage, along with industrial waste from the Washington Navy Yard, had turned the Anacostia into one of America's most polluted waterways by the late 1980s. Not coincidentally, the Anacostia runs through Washington's poorest neighborhoods. Today, things are looking up. Driving the improvement are tougher pollution laws, increased awareness of the river's value, riverfront development spurred by the new Nationals Park and, most recently, a law regulating plastic Plastic bags along the Anacosta

Plastic bags are a blight on the river. A

trash survey by the city's Department of the Environment

found that, depending on whether the garbage was collected at storm drains, streams or nearby surface sites, between 19 and 33 percent of the waste entering the Anacostia was plastic bags. About 20,000 tons of waste enter the river each year.

Last June, in an effort to protect the Anacostia and its tributaries, the D.C. City Council unanimously passed a five-cent tax on plastic and paper bags to discourage their use. Money collected under the bill will go to clean up the river.

How is the bag tax working out? Brilliantly, so far. In January, the month the bill took effect, people dramatically scaled back their use of plastic bags. According to The Washington Post:

In its first assessment of how the new law is working, the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue estimates that city food and grocery establishments issued about 3.3 million bags in January, which suggests a remarkable decrease. Prior to the bag tax taking effect Jan 1, the Office of the Chief Financial Officer had estimated that about 22.5 million bags were being issued per month in 2009.

Yes, that's right: The city's stores report that they gave out 85 percent fewer disposable bags the first month the law took effect.

Now, because of the way the law works, some stores may be giving out plastic or paper bags, collecting the 5 cent tax and not reporting it. (Stores get to keep one penny, and the other four cents is supposed to be remitted to the city.) So the actual decline may be less than 85 percent. But major retailers tell the city that their use of paper and plastic bags has dropped by more than half. That's impressive.

The tax generated about $150,000 in January to clean up the Anacostia, the city says.

What's not clear is whether it was the nickel tax itself that led customers to bring their own reusable bags or go without bags at all (that would be the view of classical economists) or whether publicity and marketing around the tax, which called attention to the scourge of throwaway bags, changed people's attitudes and with it their actions (that would be the view of behavioral economists). It's not clear, in other words, whether people were responding with their wallets or their hearts.

I asked my good friend Ed Maibach, a social marketing expert, professor of communication at George Mason University and director of the Center for Climate Change Communication, whether he thought the nickel tax or the public awareness campaign had made the difference. Probably you need both, he told me by email:


Give me one example of an information campaign that caused this degree of behavior change effect in a similarly short time period. I'm betting you can't.

Would a campaign to promote reusable bags without the tax succeed? Yes, over time, if the campaign could be sustained, for some segment of the community. "Buckle Up for Safety" campaigns convinced some people in the 70s to wear their seat belts, but only some.

Would a bag tax alone work without implementing some manner of information campaign to support it? It would, but you won't get any argument from me that the tax works better when a well-crafted information campaign is used to support it. "Click It or Ticket" campaigns increase rates of seat belt use beyond what is achieved by seat belt laws alone.

What's significant here is the fact that we can drive major changes in behavior, through a combination of economic incentives and social marketing.

Imagine, as a thought experiment, what would happen if Congress enacted a revenue-neutral gasoline tax of 25 cents a gallon, effectively immediately, with an additional 25 cents to be added each year for the next decade. All monies collected from the tax would be rebated to individuals, either on a per capita basis or in the form of lower payroll taxes. (Any economists reading this? Help me out here by suggesting the smartest way to give the money back.)

The gradual rollout of the tax would give people who drive big cars or endure long commutes time to adjust. Admittedly, buying a new car or moving closer to work are much bigger changes in behavior than carrying a reusable bag to the store. But does anyone doubt that the higher taxes would lead millions of people to walk or bike, take mass transit, buy smaller cars or drive less, reducing emissions and other air pollutants and maybe curbing highway deaths as well?

Of course, President Obama and the Congress are about as likely to enact a gasoline tax as Washington's baseball team is to go to the World Series. My Nationals lost to the Phillies on Monday, 11-1. Ouch. But what good is Opening Day, if not to dream?


Nationals Park, as seen from the river Senior Writer Marc Gunther is a longtime journalist and speaker whose focus is business and sustainability. Marc maintains a blog at You can follow him on Twitter @marcGunther.

Plastic Bag photo CC-licensed by Flickr user nutbird.