Cash-strapped cities around the country will notice this news: Washington, D.C., collected $149,432.27 in January from its tax on plastic and paper bags, according to the district's Office of Tax and Revenue. January was the first month of the district's 5-cent-per-bag tax on plastic and paper carryout bags.
D.C. Councilman Tommy Wells, who supported the measure, estimated businesses are handing out 50-80 percent fewer bags as a result of the tax.
He said the numbers suggest that residents are beating projections in how quickly they start to use fewer disposable bags. The district's chief financial officer estimated last year that residents use about 270 million disposable bags per year, or 22.5 million bags per month. The new report suggests that residents used a little less than 3 million disposable bags in January.
That could also mean the CFO's estimate was unrealistically high, or that January was a slow month for retail shopping in Washington.
But no matter how you compare the numbers, it's evident the tax is having an impact.
If Washington continues to collect about $150,000 per month for the rest of the year, that means the city will make about $1.8 million off the bag tax in 2010.
For a community the size of Washington, $1.8 million isn't a big deal — the city had an $8.8 billion spending plan for 2010. So clearly cities shouldn't approach bag taxes as major sources of revenue.
Still, I expect other cities to follow Washington's lead, because bag taxes are popular with some grass-roots environmentalists. It's tough to convince people to battle to keep their right to use single-use bags, and there's never a shortage of elected officials who crave the attention they attract by proposing product bans.
Along that same topic, I noticed a story last week in the Santa Cruz (Calif.) Sentinel about a group of 30 college students who used part of their spring break to clean up the beach in Santa Clara — and to advocate a ban on polystyrene food-service products.
The cleanup was part of something called the Wave of Change Tour 2010, organized by California Public Interest Research Group.
After the cleanup effort, the students went to Sacramento to meet with legislators and push for three bills: a ban on single-use PS take-out containers, and bans on smoking and the use of plastic bags in California state parks and on state beaches.
The group saw their effort as a David vs. Goliath battle.
“There are full-time lobbies from the chemical and plastic industry over there to tell them to keep polluting,” said Sean Caroll, an organizer for the research group at UCLA, told the Sentinel.
Not exactly the image that the plastics industry wants to cultivate — and certainly not an accurate one. But despite the industry's best efforts to date, it still has miles to go, both in polishing its environmental record, and in getting out the message about what it really does believe.
Loepp is managing editor of Plastics News and author of The Plastics Blog.