Bag This Tax

Normally, I write about matters which have national import, but bear with me as I discuss the Washington, D.C. tax on plastic bags. I chose it because I think it is a perfect illustration of how foolishly government behaves. If one wanted a better example of how elected officials jump at any chance to control behavior using tax laws, rely on unscientific bases for legislation, and then waste the new revenue they get on phony propaganda lying about the effectiveness of their program, they could find no better example than D.C.’s tax on plastic bags.


Like many really dumb ideas, this one started in San Francisco. In 2007, San Francisco banned disposable plastic grocery bags.

Washington D.C.’s city council jumped on the bandwagon, imposing a five-cent tax on plastic bags given out by grocery, convenience, and liquor stores. They ignored consumer plaints that these were valuable for toting groceries, were reused in countless ways -- from wrapping garbage to picking up after their dogs -- and were not being littered about. Instead they claimed the funds were needed to clean up the Anacostia River, targeting plastic bags as a major source of river pollution

To date, the evidence indicates the program -- designed to control behavior and not incidentally to add more revenue to the city’s coffers -- has not changed behavior. Moreover, the money was being misspent outside the clear terms of the law. The tax has far more detrimental environmental impact than the bags. It puts the burden on the poorest to fatten the pockets of a large administrative staff that is spending a lot of money on feel-good projects and propaganda rather than cleanup. The government estimates of the revenue generated fails to account for the illnesses caused by reusable bags. Last, but not least, the government has put off  dealing with the major source of pollution of the Anacostia River -- industrial waste -- and grossly underestimated the cost of the fanciful notion that the water easily can  be made swimmable and fishable .

The Tax Did Not Change Public Behavior

In 2013, in an effort  to show that the tax was working and changing public behavior, the council relied on a report by the Ferguson Foundation financed by $60,000 of the bag tax revenue, a study which claimed the tax had resulted in a sixty percent reduction of bag use. 

In actuality, it was fatally flawed -- based as it was on a gross overestimate at the starting point. In fact, the revenue figures gleaned from the affected stores showed no drop in fee revenue.

If the tax is 5 cents per bag and the revenue total is not dropping, people are buying the same number of bags and not changing their behavior. (Of course, it may even have gone up since some are getting the bags from sources that are not taxed -- like buying the T-shirt bags online as I have or from veterinarians giving them to dog owners to aid in clean ups -- none of which shows up in the tax revenue figures.)

In response to the claim by the District Official that there was a visible difference even if the revenue figures showed otherwise, even the Ferguson Foundation, whose estimate was so flawed, demurred from this anecdotal defense.

The Revenue Obtained by Misrepresentation has been Misspent

The bag fee has generated $10 million for the Anacostia River Clean-Up and Protection Fund. Washington Post reporters Amy Brittain and Steven Rich used the Freedom of Information Act to winkle out how this money is being spent. And the wasteful, if not illegal, misuse of the money is evident.

Measurements for success are admittedly nonscientific and vary widely, and more of the fund money has been allocated for field trips for schoolchildren and employee salaries than to tangible cleanup projects on the river and its watershed.

The largest grant from the fund so far, $1.2 million, will be paid over the next two years to send every D.C. fifth-grader on a two-night field trip at campsites outside the District, some up to 30 miles from the Anacostia River. Ten thousand children will participate in activities designed to provide a “meaningful watershed education experience,” such as canoeing, talking about trash, conducting water-quality experiments and learning to milk a cow.[Emphasis supplied.]

In addition, more than $1.7 million of fund money went toward personnel costs, according to data provided to The Post under the D.C. Freedom of Information Act.

The Post’s review showed that only about one-third of spending and allocations had gone toward trash traps to clean the river, rain barrels and rain gardens to catch runoff, green roofs, tree plantings, or stream restoration.

Almost 70 percent of the $10 million has been spent. About a million of it went to remediation measures like trash traps and rain barrels but more than $600,000 was spent on advertising (“Skip the Bag, Save the River”) and another $29,000 preposterously to ask people how they felt about litter.

A good deal of the money was spent contrary to the clear language of the law to pay for pre-existing salaries, and was covered up by audit legerdemain.

Plastic Bags Have No Appreciable Impact on Litter, while Reusable Bags Increase Incidents of Intestinal Illnesses

Last year, Lance Christiansen, writing in Reason, reported that the bags contribute little to solid waste, are not a major cause of blocked storm drains, and that the “county’s own studies showed that litter actually increased” when the bags were banned.

Further, the Department of Public Health has warned, “During the warmer months, the increased temperatures can promote the growth of bacteria that may be present on [reusable] bags.”

They encourage users to wash their reusable bags “frequently.” This of course consumes water -- and if the advice were followed rigorously, “reusable” bags would consume as much as 40 times more water than lightweight plastic bags.

Some dismiss this advice, bragging that they never wash their bags. In those cases, they are putting themselves and other consumers at risk as bacteria spreads easily in shopping carts and at checkout counters.

Additionally, our research demonstrated enormous direct and indirect costs on California’s consumers. If California’s 12.4 million households spend five minutes each week cleaning their shopping bags to get rid of germs and bacteria, the annual opportunity cost would be more than $1.5 billion.

The bag ban is likely to disproportionately burden the working poor and those households on a tight budget.

Professor Eugene Volokh expanded on the unintended consequences of such feel good measures.

We examine emergency room admissions related to these bacteria in the wake of the San Francisco ban. We find that ER visits spiked when the ban went into effect. Relative to other counties, ER admissions increase by at least one fourth, and deaths exhibit a similar increase.

The results really should not be all that surprising. As Businessweek reports, prior research found that few people regularly wash reusable grocery bags or take other precautionary steps (such as using separate bags for meat and produce). So, not surprisingly, tests find coliform and even e.coli bacteria in a significant percentage of bags.

The True Cause of the Anacostia River’s Pollution and Cost of Cleaning It Up

From the Washington Post:

 A lot of waste has been dumped into the waterway. The Navy Yard, once the world’s largest producer of naval ordnance, sits on the Anacostia and has been accused of leaking carcinogenic PCBs into the water for decades. The riverbanks have hosted a coal gasification plant, a rail yard, power and gas facilities and other heavy industry, all of which used chemicals that could pollute the water.

Figuring out the extent of the pollution, cleaning it up and assessing the cost of the cleanup -- which may well run to a billion dollars -- is a hard job. But teaching kids how to milk cows 30 miles away from the river and paying ad agencies hundreds of thousands of dollars to bamboozle voters into thinking they are making a difference is the low road easy choice my local politicians have chosen.

Tell me -- Is it any different where you live?

If you experience technical problems, please write to