The Anacostia Clean River Initiative-passed unanimously by the District of Columbia City Council-places a 5 cent surcharge on all disposable plastic and paper bags, with an exception for paper bags from carryout restaurants. This landmark legislation creates an incentive for shoppers to carry reusable bags, preventing a substantial amount of plastic bags from entering the Anacostia watershed each year-where they cling to branches and choke the river. Most of the fee will fund the river's cleanup.
But the new law is more than a win for the environment. It was crafted with the needs of businesses in mind, ensuring that the bill not only won the vital support of environmentalists and community members, but also escaped vigorous opposition from the business community.
When I began looking at legislation aimed at reducing plastic bag waste in our city, I was surprised by the number of bills proposed in other jurisdiction that failed to pass-especially in the states neighboring the district. It was clear that local businesses in each area viewed the bill as a threat and worked hard for their defeat.
To find out why, I met with leading D.C. businesses. Representatives from Giant Foods, Safeway, Harris Teeter, and CVS explained that disposable plastic bags-the prime target of bag bills-cost about 2 cents each, while paper bags cost 5 cents. So bans on plastic bags literally double business costs. Some of them said if they could turn back time, they may not have started the tradition of giving away "free" bags because they increase overhead costs, cutting their small profit margins on food sales.
Taking their concerns to heart, I looked at successful efforts to eliminate plastic bags. In Ireland, disposable bags carry a fee of 32 cents each, and here in the United States IKEA dramatically reduced disposable bag use by charging a 5-cent fee. So I proposed a mandatory fee of 5 cents per bag-with 4 cents devoted to river cleanup and one penny retained by the business owner. The response was interesting.
One business representative-a veteran of successful battles against initiatives such as the failed D.C. Bottle Deposit Bill-said he would think it over, while the other representatives responded favorably. One even proposed a much higher fee of 20 cents, even though he feared publicly supporting it. They all appreciated the fact that the fee would apply to all businesses licensed to sell food in the district, including Target, maintaining a fair and level playing field. Ultimately, they all agreed to stay on the sidelines for the fight ahead while quietly cheering the measure on.
Next I met with the D.C. Chamber of Commerce. They greatly appreciated my consulting with businesses at the beginning of the legislative process and were clearly sensitive about appearing to be anti-environment. Their one request was to make the one cent of the bag fee retained by businesses tax-free. I agreed, and as a result the Chamber was no help to lobbyists for the plastic industry lobbyists when they came to town.
The only business group to oppose the bill was the D.C. Restaurant Association, which had concerns about having to charge the fee for take-out and "doggy" bags. But even their opposition was muted by the council's concession to exempt paper bags for prepared food from restaurants. In fact, several outspoken, environmentally conscious local restaurant owners actively supported the bill.
I cannot overstate the importance of coordinating our efforts to pass the bill with the traditional environmental advocates and tying the bill to funding the cleanup of the Anacostia River.
But the greatest lesson I learned is the value of fully researching all of the issues that may fuel opposition, making no assumptions about its drivers. By understanding the business impacts of plastic bag fees and bans, I was able to identify and relieve legitimate concerns, winning easy passage of a law that will produce a sea change in consumer behavior and benefit the D.C. environment for decades to come.
As chairman of the Bay Program's Local Government Advisory Committee, I also struggle with water quality issues beyond the Anacostia River, wider issues that extend to the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed.
I firmly believe that the lessons learned in getting the Anacostia Clean River Initiative passed can and should be applied to garner a much deeper level of support for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.