Kojo chats with two reporters who spent the past year following the launch of Ron Brown College Preparatory High School, D.C.'s new school for boys of color. Their stories are now featured in "Raising Kings," a collaboration between NPR and Education Week.
Does paying a nickel for each bag you use at the grocery store make sense? A year after the District of Columbia adopted a five-cent bag fee, we explore similar proposals elsewhere in the region and look at the environmental and economic repercussions.
- Christophe Tulou Director, District of Columbia Department of the Environment
- Nancy Floreen Member, Montgomery County Council (D-At Large)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIDoes paying a nickel for a bag at the grocery store make sense to you? If you live in the District of Columbia, you have a simple choice at the checkout counter -- bring your own shopping bag or pay five cents for paper or plastic. And if you live in Montgomery County or anywhere in Virginia or Maryland, a new bag fee could be in your future. Last year, the District of Columbia passed a law that requires stores selling food or alcohol to charge for carryout bags, both paper and plastic.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIOne year later, the city has become something of a model for environmentalists who want to reduce the litter stream and for lawmakers looking to raise some money. But opponents still argue that government shouldn't be getting between shoppers and their groceries. Joining us in studio to discuss this is Nancy Floreen, member of the Montgomery County Council. Councilmember Floreen, good to see you.
MS. NANCY FLOREENGreat to be here. Good to see you.
NNAMDIThank you for joining us in studio. Also with us is Christophe Tulou, director of the District of Columbia Department of the Environment. Christophe, good to see you, too.
MR. CHRISTOPHE TULOUThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou can call us, 800-433-8850, or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org if you'd like to join this conversation. Christophe, a year ago, the District of Columbia voted to require stores that sell food and alcohol to charge a five-cent fee for plastic or paper bags at the checkout counter. Can you explain what stores must do under this law?
TULOUWhat they're required to do is charge five cents for any paper or plastic bag that someone uses to carry food out of the establishment. That was established through the vision of Councilmember Tommy Wells and, actually, was very much enabled by some great groundwork that he and the rest of us in the District did in anticipation of the law taking effect.
NNAMDIAs I understand it, the primary goal of this bag fee is environmental, to reduce the number of plastic bags that litter the city and these waterways, especially the Anacostia River. What impact has the D.C. bag fee had on the Anacostia? Is it any cleaner than it was a year ago?
TULOUWell, we have a number of ways of gauging that. And obviously, it's been in place for a year, so we'll learn more as we go. But one of the things that we have found in, actually, interviewing retailers is that they're using about 50 percent less bags, actually, buying and having to provide about 50 percent fewer. The Alice Ferguson Foundation, in a cleanup of the Potomac, found about 66 percent fewer plastic bags in the trash they picked up this past spring. So there seems to be some pretty clear evidence that the bag fee is working.
NNAMDINancy Floreen, Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett has proposed a 5-cent fee for paper and plastic bags modeled on the one in D.C. It's my understanding, you do not like this idea.
FLOREENI'm not a fan of this one. That's for sure, Kojo. I -- actually, (unintelligible) goes -- is farther -- goes farther than the District wanted to pose it to all bags. So Bed Bath & Beyond, at the card store, everywhere, I think, is covered by this proposal. With some notable exceptions, it doesn't apply to carry-out food from restaurants and the like. For example, it would apply to my purchase at Hardware City, it would apply to my purchase at 7-Eleven, but it would not apply to my purchase -- take out at Chipotle. I brought you some visuals. I know this is a...
NNAMDII noticed, because you've pointed out...
FLOREEN...radio show. (laugh)
NNAMDI...that a lot of people actually reuse their grocery store bags.
FLOREENWell, here, I have my Shoppers Food Warehouse bag I brought with me here, says it has minimum of 25 percent recycled content. I have The Washington Post bag, which takes it up -- it says, it's 50-percent recycled content. Turns out if you're bag is brown or beige or something -- has some color in it...
FLOREEN...means it's recycled. Brought my Whole Foods bag, which I think is all recycled content, more or less.
FLOREENPaper bag. And then, to show I'm not opposed to this, I brought my own personal Nancy Floreen County Council bag, which I used for political purposes, which is made in China. You can bring it home and use it over and over again. It, I think, is probably -- I'm embarrassed -- it's probably made of totally petroleum...
FLOREEN…products. Plus, you can't recycle this one. But this is what we're encouraging. You know, Montgomery County -- I raised my hand to vote for a lot of taxes. We tax as many things as we can get our hands on there -- for good purposes. But I guess, just this one...
NNAMDIWhat do you see...
FLOREEN...is just going too far. Five cents for a bag, I don't think it's really gonna change behavior. I have been at the forefront of trying to change behavior, at least, when I first started in political office. Years ago, I was proponent of the parks service suggestion that to reduce litter in the parks and save cash, we would remove the trashcans from the parks.
FLOREENBut you would have thought we were proposing to drown puppies. You know, people didn't wanna change their ways. And I think -- I don't think this is gonna make a big difference. What I do agree on, though, is that cleaning up the Acostia -- Anacostia and our stream valleys are critically important.
NNAMDIWell, how do you think that should be accomplished...
NNAMDI...if not with a bag fee?
FLOREEN...what no one has mentioned, really, is that Montgomery County -- and the District has a similar, kind of, tax. We have a Water Quality Protection Charge that's on everybody's property tax bill. Ike's proposing to raise that by about 25 percent this year. I'm not complaining about that one. Maybe we need to raise it more. That's where we're focusing on stormwater management protections, cleaning up the river beds, improving how we remove crud from our roadway system and focusing on cleaning up the Anacostia as well. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the work we've put into that has helped cleaned up the river, so far, and contributed to the good results that the studies are reflecting.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Nancy Floreen. She's a member of the Montgomery County Council. She joins us in studio along with Christophe Tulou, director of the District of Columbia Department of the Environment. We're talking about the experience in the District of Columbia with bag fees and why Councilmember Floreen opposes a comparable bag fee in Montgomery County. Before I get back to Christophe, you talked about, on the one hand, how you don't think this is necessarily going to help clean up the environment. Another common complaint about the bag fee is that it's regressive, that it places a bigger burden on people with less income. Why?
FLOREENAbsolutely. Absolutely, it does. The people who really have little choice -- and again, remember, we're not -- in Montgomery County, this is not limited to grocery shopping. This is applicable to everything. You know, I went to the card store the other day, bought several birthday cards. They gave me a thin, little paper bag to put them in. That bag would be subject to this tax under the proposal.
FLOREENI don't see it really changing anybody's behavior but raising, you know...
NNAMDIGetting to the behavior issue right now. Because, Christophe Tulou, the study by the Alice Ferguson Foundation, an environmental group, not only found that bag use in the District had decreased, oh, 80 percent in the year since the bag fee was enacted. But what do those numbers tell us about individual habits, about behavioral changes, if you will?
TULOUWell, you know, we're a city that talks about trillions of dollars all the time. And to me, it's absolutely astounding the power of a nickel. And the -- I think the real point here is that what we're giving customers, whether they're high-income or low-income, is a choice. You don't have to pay a 5-cent fee. All you have to do is bring a bag, whether you're buying cards, food, a record or CD -- oh boy, I'm dating myself. But at any rate, whatever that is, is we have a lot of options. In Washington, these are accessories. You don't see people going in the stores without bags and walking around the city. They're a statement.
TULOUAnd, you know, my wife went into the grocery store one day. She was returning something, had no intention of picking up anything but did, went to the cashier and he looks at her and says, do you have a bag for me or you're gonna foul the Anacostia River?
NNAMDIThe cashier said that to her?
TULOUThe cashier said that to her.
NNAMDIOoh. Is the city getting complaints from shoppers about having to pay for bags? Do you have any sense of who is most upset and whether complaints have decreased of people have become more accustomed to the fee?
TULOUWell, you know, early on, you have some people that are concerned about change. We hear no complaints at this point. Alice Ferguson along with ISO did this survey. And we found out that 75 percent of the people are actually using less plastic bags. And there's virtually no one in the city isn't aware that this fee is in place and have made the connection, as that cashier did, between either paying the fee or using a recycled bag and the benefit to the Anacostia River.
NNAMDIOne more before I get back to Councilmember Floreen. The Ferguson Foundation surveyed local business owners. The majority apparently said that the bag fee had not affected their overall business. What are you hearing from stores in the District that sell groceries and alcohol?
TULOUA majority of the retailers that we reached out to said that this is having no impact on their business whatsoever. When we dug a little deeper to say, well, is it having any effect whatsoever that you can point out? There were two things. One is we have less litter around our store. And the second thing is our overhead has dropped because we don't have to stock as many bags.
NNAMDIWell, back to you, Councilmember Floreen. You have said, on the revenue side, that the proposed bag tax in Montgomery County would not raise enough money to even make it worth the hassle in a tough budget year. Why not?
FLOREENI don't think -- well, when you subtract the costs of administering the program, when you subtract the proposal, of course, to give up bags -- I hope they're not made in China -- out of lead or whatever plastic -- petroleum product that they're made out of. But, you know, there are costs of running a program that are implicit in these initiatives. You know, look, I think people will respond to this for the short term. But in the long term, I really don't think that people gonna change their ways. In other parts of the country, in the world where this has been done, over time, people revert. And I think that is the issue. The real focus should be what are the significant ways that we can protect the environment.
FLOREENAnd I do believe that a coordinated strategy through the region in terms of impervious surface, which is something that both jurisdictions are working on in terms of stormwater management, and some things that we can't control, at least for us at the local level, are really key. Look at the pesticides. Look at the heavy metals that go into the water. How can we clean that part up? That's expensive. That's long term. And that's an important part of any regional strategy.
FLOREENOur challenge, of course, is that we have a multiple -- multitude of jurisdictions here. And Prince George's County, which is a major player with respect to the Anacostia, isn't here with us today. I'm not sure what -- how they're approaching this. But I know that they're equally concerned.
NNAMDIHere is Keith in Takoma Park. Keith, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
FLOREENOh, I know Keith. Hi, Keith.
KEITHHello, Nancy. You can imagine why I'm calling. I really wanted to respond to the councilwoman's op-ed in The Washington Post. And I want to ask for the conversation from Councilmember Floreen to step back from Orwellian. And in your op-ed, you cited about five...
NNAMDII should point out that that op-ed was in The Washington Post on Friday, March 18, correct?
KEITHThank you. I appreciate that.
FLOREENOr Sunday. It was on Sunday.
NNAMDIIt was the Sunday.
KEITHIt actually is the Sunday paper...
NNAMDISunday, March 20.
FLOREENBut online earlier.
FLOREENKeith follows me pretty carefully.
NNAMDIGo ahead, Keith.
KEITHYou raised about five or six points in that op-ed to oppose the bag fee, and every single one of those points was either inaccurate and specious or was disingenuous.
NNAMDIWell, pick one. Pick one, Keith. We don't have that much time.
KEITHI will. I didn't figure that you did . I'll pick one right now. One is that you cited the Alice Ferguson Foundation as saying that results from the bag tax in D.C. had not yet been quantified. In fact, of course, as we're hearing today, the Alice Ferguson Foundation has found that three-quarters of residents in the District have stopped using plastic bags. I also wanna note that you said we don't have time in this county to deal with this issue, that the only thing worthy of being dealt with is the budget crisis.
KEITHAnd I pointed out in my rebuttal to you that on the very next day of the council's meeting, that would be a week ago tomorrow, you had two items in the agenda that had absolutely nothing to do with the budget, and here you are spending your time on a call-in show opposing a common sense environmental measure. Well...
NNAMDIWell, here is Councilmember Floreen.
FLOREEN(laugh) Well, you know, look, Keith, I really do think that you can't quantify changes in people's behavior. Lots of D.C. residents shop outside the District. You can't measure that. And I'll give you that, you know, there have been some changes in human behavior right now. But as I said earlier in the show, when we proposed taking pretty aggressive measures to eliminate litter and people bringing trash into our parks and our stream valleys, the wave of community resistance to that -- a huge amount from Takoma Park may I add -- really pushed everybody back from taking real measures that, I think, would change human behavior.
FLOREENSo I think we're in agreement that we wanna see improvement. And frankly, I don't like spending a lot on time on this. I've been on the council now, this is my ninth year. I've gone along with a lot of things. But at this point, I really don't think that taxing people 5 cents a bag is gonna change the behavior, particular when you're looking at the range of things that aren't gonna be taxed.
NNAMDIKeith, thank you very much for your call. Christophe Tulou, a study commissioned by Americans for Tax Reform says the bag law will result in the elimination of more than 100 local jobs and cost the District $100,000 in lost sales tax revenue. What are you seeing as the economic repercussions of this and can you see that happening down the road?
TULOUActually, I'm astounded by all of this and I have no idea...
NNAMDIPeople who make plastic bags are saying that we may have to lay off people because we are not -- we don't have as great a demand for plastic bags as we did before.
TULOUWell, the point is, is that there are a lot of applications for plastic bags. We just don't want them on our streets and in our rivers, that's the bottom line. The other point to make here is, you know, we've got a proposal here that is going to remove the burden from taxpayers who are already paying to help clean up trash in our environment to those who actually are contributing to that trash existing there in the first place. That's a very important first point. But the other point is the State of Maryland, Montgomery County and the District have already committed through a trash-free Potomac summit agreement and also to -- through a trash team (word?) pollution diet for the Anacostia River to get plastic and other trash out of the river within five to six years.
TULOUWe're already paying for that. What we're suggesting is shifting that burden, living up to that obligation we already have by having the people responsible help to cover the cost of getting that trash out.
NNAMDIOkay. We've got to take a short break. All of you who have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. But the lines are full, so you may want to go to our website, kojoshow.org, or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Send email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on proposed bag fees in Montgomery County, Maryland and Virginia. We're talking with Christophe Tulou, director of the District of Columbia Department of the Environment, and Nancy Floreen, who is a member of the Montgomery County Council. This email we got from Larry in D.C., "While I agree with the conclusion that plastic bags have contributed to the pollution in the Anacostia, what is the rationale for also taxing paper bags? The logical rationale would be that banning paper bags will contribute to saving our environment. If that's the case, then why not start out by taxing the biggest paper generators of all?
NNAMDI"And who are they? Let's start with The Washington Post and beyond. Would this ever happen? I don't think so. Why can't legislators admit that a tax on paper bags along with plastic bags is just a politically correct feel-good tax proposition that nickels and dimes, people particularly those who can least afford it?" Spoken, it would appear, on behalf of Nancy Floreen, here is Christophe Tulou.
FLOREENOh, there are plenty of people like that. (laugh)
TULOUYeah. The point is, is it takes a whole lot of resource, more resources actually to produce the paper bag than it does to produce the plastic bag that we're concerned about. The idea here is, indeed, behavior changes. It's not a tax to raise revenues. The idea is to have that revenue drop to zero because everybody is using recycled bags. So this isn't a backdoor tax to increase revenues and put a feel-good feeling on it. It really is intended to be a revenue source that will diminish over time as people's behavior changes. Again, the facts are there in the District. People have embraced this. They are doing it, and we are saving a lot of pollution as a result of it. And we're experienced about half the revenue that we had anticipated, and we're happy about that.
NNAMDILet's hear -- go ahead.
FLOREEN...could I weigh in here? But you know, my plastic bags that I brought with me are made from recycled materials. My very handy political bag that you -- is proposed to be distributed is not. This is not recyclable.
TULOUBut it's reusable. That plastic bag, it doesn't matter...
FLOREENWell, I reuse these too.
TULOU...if that ends up in the river, nobody is gonna know the difference whether it's recycled or not. It's a trash problem that we're trying to deal with.
FLOREENWell, let's pick the issue that -- the problem we're trying to solve then, and I think that's where we need to focus.
NNAMDILet's focus on Virginia for just one second. Here is Kevin in Arlington, Va. Kevin, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KEVINHi, Kojo. Thanks and thanks for bringing integrity to talk radio. I really appreciate it. I'm representing the Arlington Green Party in this call and, you know, it just seems like a non-starter to even argue about the sensibility of such an incentive. Financial incentives to change behavior, always a good idea. If it's in the public interest, we should do those types of things. Why argue about nickels and dimes when it has such a positive effect?
NNAMDIThe nanny state, Kevin, the nanny state, the government intruding on people's personal preferences. People feel like getting plastic or paper.
KEVINWell, you know, we all have to grow up some day, and so be it. I don't -- I'd love to have that in Virginia, too. And Arlington County Board has worked on that. In Virginia, we have this antiquated law called the -- or policy called the Dillon Rule, and it prevents local government from making sensible local choices. I won't go on about that. I do wanna make a pitch here. Arlington Green Party is going to host a nonpolitical event -- it's an information event -- on April 3 at 4 o'clock near the Boston Metro station. It's going to be at the central library. And it...
NNAMDIOkay. Is there a website that people can go to, to get more information about that?
KEVINThere is. It's not active yet. They can go to the Arlington Green Party website. There also will be...
NNAMDIOkay. That works. Arlington Green Party website. Kevin, thank you for your call. Joining us now by telephone is Maryland Delegate Alfred Carr, who is a sponsor of the bag law in the Maryland legislature. And since the District he represents is Montgomery County, I am sure that he is extremely familiar with our guest, Nancy Floreen. Delegate Carr, thank you for your call. Delegate Carr, are you there? Alfred Carr? Delegate Carr, you there?
FLOREENHe's sponsoring the statewide...
MR. ALFRED CARRHello. I can hear you.
NNAMDIOh, we can hear you now.
NNAMDITell us about the legislation you're sponsoring.
CARRWell, sure. So just like Montgomery County is considering legislation and Washington, D.C. has passed legislation, we have in the Maryland General Assembly under consideration a statewide bag fee that's modeled very closely on what the District of Columbia enacted and has been in place since January 2010.
NNAMDIAnd what do you say to the argument that I just made -- a bag tax is yet another example of government run amok, reaching too far into people's personal lives?
CARRWell, when you have such dramatic and effective results, as we've seen in the District of Columbia with actually getting results, changing behavior and not having a detrimental impact on businesses, on low-income people, on other people, it makes a very, very compelling case that this is a, you know, a wise policy choice.
NNAMDIWell, allow me to bring Christophe Tulou back into the discussion because it is my understanding that the bag fee in the District of Columbia raised less money than was expected, which gets back to the argument that Nancy Floreen is making about whether or not it's gonna make a significant improvement in the bad budget situation.
TULOUWell, it never was intended to reduce deficits. And so, in that regard, who cares? But the point is, is that if you apply something as miniscule as a nickel to the purchase of something, people will make a choice. And the choice that they're making overwhelmingly is, you know, I don't need to pay that. I've got bags that I've got in the back of the car, that I can easily carry to the store and use them over and over and over again. And that is really all this is about. The revenues that are generated, in our case, go to Anacostia clean-up and protection. It's a wonderful opportunity. But as Nancy mentioned earlier, both jurisdictions have other ways of advancing those projects as well. This is really about getting people not to use plastic bags and to get it out of our trash.
NNAMDIDelegate Carr, are you -- do you have a revenue aspect to your proposal? And exactly what state is it in -- what state in the process is it in now in the state -- in the general assembly?
CARRWell, we have a 90-day session that winds up on April 11. So we'll know pretty soon about the fate of the Maryland proposal. But I agree with D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells in that this -- we're not trying to get into people's wallets. We're trying to get into your minds. We're trying to change behavior. If there's a small amount of revenue collected, it'll go to, in Maryland, to the Chesapeake Bay Trust, where it'll go to water quality projects.
NNAMDIAnd in terms of process, Nancy Floreen, it's my understanding that, March 31, there's a hearing in Montgomery County?
FLOREENWe're having -- we'll have a public hearing on 31st, and it's tentatively scheduled to go to committee on April 4. We'll see. Scheduling is being worked out right now.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Ken, who says, "Dog owners need those bags. I pay the extra 5 cents every time I find a bag appropriate to my after-use. I figure the tax will go toward cleaning up the bag someone else threw into the Anacostia. What we need are more biodegradable bags that can be used to pick up dog poo." So...
FLOREENThere you go. There you go.
TULOUAn entrepreneurial opportunity.
NNAMDIDelegate Carr, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIOn to Ben in Washington, D.C. Ben, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BENHi there. I just would like to say that eliminating any kind of garbage from circulation and raising revenue is all good and fine. But as someone who has spent many years driving around the District, I am certain that a huge percentage of the garbage that's ending up in the rivers is coming out of the backs of garbage trucks and other large trucks. I've seen it just -- behind trucks where it's just garbage is just literally just dumping out of the back of them. And I don't really see that many people just -- you know, individuals throwing their garbage away on the street. It's more these huge trucks that are just letting enormous amounts of garbage spew all over the place.
NNAMDIChristophe Tulou, that has a great deal to do with regulation -- I mean, with enforcement.
TULOUIt does indeed. What we're seeing -- and we're obviously gonna collect more information -- is a dramatic reduction in plastic bags and trash as a result of and following the enactment of this law. It doesn't account for, obviously, anything that's spilling out of trash trucks, but obviously it'll give us the opportunity to see just how much individual behavior is responsible as opposed to trucks. It is an enforcement issue. I hear what you're saying, and obviously we'll need to take a look at that.
NNAMDIWell, the other enforcement issue is that a lot of people say this bag fee that the District of Columbia has is virtually unenforceable. Different stores have different policies. Nobody knows the difference. How do you attempt to enforce?
TULOUWell, actually, we have begun an enforcement process. But so much of this has been about bringing people's awareness up to par. Again, for retailers, what they're telling us, it's either a neutral impact or they're actually saving money by having to stock fewer plastic bags. So...
FLOREENWell, yeah, but if you're going to Macy's and buying, you know, underwear, socks and a shirt, you're gonna want a bag, I think.
TULOUWell, bring it.
FLOREENIn Montgomery County, I -- you're -- well, you know, they're worried about shoplifters, too. So in Montgomery County, that's gonna be another kettle of fish. An interesting conversation. You know, the -- it's well-intentioned. No question about this. But this is the best way to crack that nut. I don't really see it happening over the long-term.
NNAMDIHere is Barbara in Ellicott City, Md. Barbara, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BARBARAYes, I wanted to talk about a couple of issues. One was the impact on the low-income folks, because in the Maryland bill, they will be provided, free reusable bags, by state agencies who get their budgets recouped once the fees start coming in. The other issue that I wanted to bring up is that, certainly, if we get rid of paper, if we exempt paper from this -- paper costs about two and a half times what plastic costs, so we'll actually pay higher in grocery fees if we do that because the grocers are -- and all stores are buying these bags and giving them out for free to us. So, of course, they're gonna put it in their overhead and charge us for that. And also, many countries around the world have banned plastic bags because, for instance, in Bangladesh, they have had huge monsoons that have caused flooding because their storm waters -- drains have been plugged up by plastic bags and has caused thousands of deaths. And they had to do something about it.
BARBARAWe don't wanna get to the point where we have to do it after the fact where there's been some problem.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Barbara. Councilmember Floreen, we had Valerie Ervin on this show this past Friday, "The Politics Hour." She seems to favor the bag fee at this point. What are you expecting in the process at the county council level?
FLOREENOh, Montgomery County likes to jump on the bandwagon. I think this is likely to be pretty successful. Will there be some adjustments? I hope so. You know, not a lot of attack on bags. I'm not sure it's the useful way to solve the environmental problem. I think -- you know, talking about plastics, let's have that conversation. We're kind of...
FLOREEN...constrained in what we can do, but it's worth a serious conversation about plastics, generally.
NNAMDIUnfortunately, we're just about out of time. Nancy Floreen is a member of the Montgomery County Council. Thank you for joining us. Christophe Tulou is director of the District of Columbia Department of the Environment. Christophe Tulou, I guess we'll be getting more detailed information about this as time goes by.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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