changing consumer behaviors: the dc bag tax

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Did you know if you bring reusable bags to Trader Joe’s, you can enter their BYOB (bag) raffle for $100 worth of groceries? When I was shopping there the other day, I asked the cashier how many people enter. She said they estimate it to be 30,000 per month! That number- much higher than I expected- got me thinking about measures that businesses and governments implement to change consumers’ behaviors.

While I was living in Washington, DC, the city implemented a city-wide bag tax- called the Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Act of 2009- meaning $.05 was charged for each disposable bag a consumer received from a retailer. $.01 of this revenue went to the retailer and $.04 to a government-run Anacostia River clean-up project.

The bag tax was heralded as a win-win-win. Consumers had an incentive to change their behaviors; businesses paid less money for plastic and paper bags; and the Anacostia River would be cleaned up if people didn’t change their consumption habits. Also importantly, consumers had a relatively easy choice in the matter: don’t make an effort and pay the fee or bring a bag and save $.05. In a way, it was an optional tax.

According to an article in the Washington Post, the bag tax netted $2 million, which was half of the expected amount. This is interpreted to mean that consumers changed their habits, opting to bring reusable bags instead of spending $.05. Some studies claimed that this was a negative result, but the tax naturally pans out with more revenue netted and the same amount of bags consumed or less revenue but fewer bags consumed; by nature, it can’t be both. The Washington Times adds that “A city official said the fee has already made a positive impact by reducing the amount of garbage in the river.” Estimates say the amount of trash  produced by bags in the river was reduced by 50%. Another study showed that overall, “customers used 3.3 billion bags in one month, compared to an estimated 22.5 billion being used prior to the law taking effect.”

As with any law, there’s been some fall-out (though some of it is debatable): As I mentioned, opponents state that the lower-than-expected levels of revenue are a negative outcome, but I would disagree with that point based on the rationale above. According to studies, purchases in Washington, DC decreased because of the law; this allegation is contended by many proponents of the tax. One assertion against the law may have some merit though- as one snarky commentor said, “D.C.’s poor and elderly who rely on public transportation aren’t likely to have a Subaru Outback or Volvo station wagon in which to keep all of their Life is Good canvas bags handy.” Additionally, opponents claim that the majority of reusable grocery bags contain unsanitary amounts of bacteria because they are rarely cleaned.

Overall, yet another interesting example of an argument having two valid sides. As for me: I will continue to bring my reusable grocery bag to Trader Joe’s in the hopes that I will one day win the coveted bag of groceries! And I just might pop my bag into the washing machine every so often too 🙂

Another good example of a business positively reinforcing beneficial behaviors: Starbucks subtracts $.10 every time you bring your own cup! You get a discount, they buy fewer cups: win win!

Would the bag tax encourage you to bring your own reusable bag? Know of any other interesting taxes or measures that encourage more conscious consumerism? Does positive reinforcement (like the Starbucks discount) or negative punishment (like the bag tax) work better for you? 


4 thoughts on “changing consumer behaviors: the dc bag tax

  1. bahah i miss youuuuuuuuuuu!!! the snarky commentator has an interesting point, but come on – people can reuse plastic bags more than a few times.

  2. I’m in the bring-your-own-bag crowd but I’d be curious to see the effect on the number of trips taken to a grocery store when using reusable bags versus using the store’s plastic bags. It’s a pretty common occurrence to see someone leave a grocery store with 10+ plastic bags. The reusable crowd typically seems to be of the mindset to carry in only what you can carry out. If consumers are willing to bring their own bags but ultimately take more trips to the store, the end result might just be shifting the environmental detriment from one location (rivers, streams) to another (air pollution).

    • that’s worth looking into. there’s a lot more to consider though, just to play devil’s advocate.. in DC for example, many people are probably walking to their grocery stores.

      plus, i think some cashiers are just bag happy when there’s an endless supply. i’m living in egypt right now and the plastic bag usage is out of control. every little item gets its own bag, or double bag! even when i insist that i brought my own bag, i get a weird look and then the item is put in my bag – inside a plastic bag. just saying that 10+ plastic bags might not necessarily equal what 10+ canvas bags could carry.

      also, if you are buying more at once, chances are your goods are non-perishable or less perishable than others, whether it be due to cans, chemicals, etc. buying non-perishable goods in the name of air pollution is a bit contradictory, since the production of those goods & their packaging are probably worse for the environment than fresh produce.

    • Hm never thought of it like that! I generally bring one or two reusable bags and then just use a plastic or paper bag if need be. For me it’s not worth the energy of returning to the store, but at least I can say I put in some effort!

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