Dear PoP – Bag Tax/Fee For Paper Bags Too? Is it Working?

Photo by PoPville flickr user Mr. T in DC

“Dear PoP,

I just got back from Merzi, the new “fast casual” Indian joint on 7th Street, near the Verizon Center. The food was good. The concept appears to have been ripped off from Chipotle, and I think it will do well.

Anyway, I had take out and noticed I got assessed $0.05 for the bag tax. Now, I am not by any means sweating the 5 cent tax at all, but the strange thing is the bag that the food came in was paper. I thought the tax was only for plastic bags. Is the operator into some “Office Space” decimal rounding type scam?

I am sure that the assessment of the tax is pretty inconsistent across the city. I support the tax, since it will/has cut down on plastic bag consumption. Do you know of any recent data that shows how much waste the tax has prevented and how much money the tax has raised?”

First I know some people are gonna get upset by the use of the word tax. So tax or other people like to call it a fee, but bottom line is yes, it applies to paper bags as well.

There are reports that $150,000 was raised in January and the number of plastic bags used plummeted. Anyone know how much total money has been raised so far?

Have you guys noticed that your habits of changed? Do you mostly use reusable bags now?

83 Comment

  • I have always used cotton bags but I hate the fact that I am thugged into paying a “tax” fee when I need to use a recyclable one. (i.e. a spur of the moment trip to the market on the way home) I agree the outcome is good but they could have done the same thing with outlawing the plastic bags although that would not have lined the pockets of corrupt government (speculating I know). I never throw rubbish on the ground so why am I taxed on it? Why is the tax on paper bags too as the writer asks? why are not all businesses taxed, Home Depot does not charge the fee. Why do I not get a credit at stores for using my own bags? (Giant does this and did before the tax)Why ask why? : )

    • I think places like Home Depot are exempt because a lot of Home Depot stuff doesn’t fit in a standard reuseable bag.

      • Well that makes no sense. They charge you when you use a bag so even if only 1/10th of what they sell goes in a bag that is still a bag that could end up in the river. All the bags they have are plastic.

        I would like to see a study done on the increase in shoplifting since the ban came into effect. I have many times walked into Target with a big ole Bed Bath Beyond bag and could have easily stuffed it with target merchandise and walked out, nobody checks that, how could they for every one? I shove my goods in my back pack all the time and nobody questions it, I could just as easily be stealing (cept I don’t haha)

        • I think you’re supposed to use a cart or basket– women have carried purses for years and they don’t carry around unpurchased merchandise in them. That no one notices or cares that you’re doing it has more to do with unconcerned employees than the bag tax.

      • places that don’t sell food are exempt

      • they are exempt, but that’s not why. It’s because only places that sell food or drink are subject to the tax. It says that in the link in the original post.

        To clarify, the bag tax is for places that sell food and drink, but not just for purchases of food and drink. So if you buy a CD at Starbucks and want a bag for it, that’ll be 5 cents. Also, you can’t be charged for a bag if the food is unwrapped, like produce at a grocery store or farmers’ market.

        • Home Depot is supposed charge the fee because they do sell soda, so they should have a food retail license.

          DDOE hired the “bag cop” a couple of months ago, so enforcement is finally underway. In the meantime, you can always fill out DDOE’s bag tip line if you think a store is not in compliance.

    • The bag tax only applies to places that sell food. But, the store doesn’t have to sell primarily food or only food, so places like Bed, Bath, and Beyond, which sells candy and snacks are still subject to the tax.

  • I almost never use plastic bags anymore when I’m at stores, but I still can’t seem to train myself to take bags into eating establishments.

  • whole foods uses only paper bags and charges the 5 cent tax. i think the tax applies to any “nonreusable” bag. even though i reuse my paper and plastic bags multiple times

  • the fee should not be charged on paper bags if the restaurant you are ordering from has seating. if they dont have dine in seating, paper bags are taxed the same as plastic. plastic bags are always taxed

    • ah

      I don’t get it either. Paper (sandwich-size) bag at qdoba burrito-no tax. Paper (sandwich-size) bag at California tortilla-tax.

      I’m not a fan of the tax, and I’m certainly not a fan for small paper bags (I understand grocery bags), but the total lack of consistency is ridiculous.

  • I just don’t get why DC can’t set up the rule so that only places whose business is 50% or more in food and beverage have to apply the rule. It is asinine that if I buy a dress at Filene’s Basement, I have to pay a bag tax just because they sell chocolate bars. Ridiculous!

      • Agreed x2. I once bought a card at a stationary store and they charged me the tax. I asked them why since I didn’t see a single piece of candy or chocolate or anything edible. Her response was, “well, we used to sell candy but don’t anymore.” uh, what!? Ridic.

        • Agreed x3! I think that really is ridiculous and was completely shocked when it happened to me last weekend at Filene’s and TJ Maxx.

          • It’s FIVE CENTS. 5 cents. Really? You are all worked up about 5 cents? Plus, a plastic bag at TJMax is just as wasteful (and just as likely to end up in the Potomac) as a plastic bag from Safeway, whether they sell chocolate bars or not. I think all stores should have the tax. Heck, I think the tax should be 25 cents! [gasp]

  • i think i heard on the kojo radio show that the reason they tax paper bags too… i can’t remember exactly so i am probably injecting some of my own thought in here… is that paper bags cost more for the proprietor to provide you. if the tax simply shifted the public from plastic bags to paper, the business could LOSE money on a transaction (if someone bought only a dozen eggs on sale for $1.19 and put them in a paper bag, for instance). Additionally shifting demand from plastic bags (solid waste pollution problem) to paper (deforestation problem) seems like “six of one, half dozen of the other.” I know they are claiming it’s just to save the anacostia but I think there is a little more to it than that.

    I have to say that it has encouraged me to use reusable bags. I always have tried to but wasn’t as good about remembering it until after the tax.

    • ah

      That’s right — the tax on paper grocery bags was mainly to avoid the cost to businesses of having everyone go for the “free” bag.

      Of course, that would have been the best way to eliminate use of plastic, since basically no one would choose it.


    The bag tax isn’t as big a revenue collector as it is a habit changer. Fewer bags are being used – a good thing.

  • The bag tax to me is like the ban on smoking in bars. When it was announced, I thought it was ridiculous. But, turns out that I don’t even have to think about bringing bags to stores, and the smoking ban has been very helpful in quitting smoking. So in these 2 cases, Go Big Government!

    • Agree. I live in VA, but when the bag tax was announced I had two thoughts: 1) I should start using reuseable bags, so when I finally get that house in DC the habit will be ingrained, and 2) I really should be using reusable bags anyway. So I rounded up all the random bags I’ve accumulated over the years and started using them regularly on my grocery excursions.

  • The two changes I have noticed in my household is that I now own at least 50 of those friggin recyclable grocery bags and if I am picking up something quick at Giant with my enviro-friendly husband, when asked if we need any bags he says NO. So we carry 5 apples,Soy milk, chicken, 2 packs of frozen vegetables, two bottle waters, and a bottle of wine in our hands, and his bookbag. (which already harbors four overdue library books.) vent vent.

  • yeah i do this too… 🙁

  • I always meant to use reusable bags more. But I didn’t consistently until the bag tax came along. Amazing how something so small could change my behavior. Win in my book.

  • I think I agree with Foxy.

    The tax/fee should be consistent throughout – food or not.

    If you are buying something too big to fit in a bag, why in the world would you need one… that makes no sense.

  • I’ve always preferred heading up to the Giant in Silver Spring for groceries but was usually in too much of a rush to do so. Now I go there on the weekend for groceries and just keep 2-3 recyclable bags in my work bag for quick items during the week.

  • I have noticed a lot less discarded bags that I need to pick up off my street every day. For me that’s a win.

  • Has the bag tax resulted in an increase in dog poop in public places? I know that since the bag tax, I am always scrounging around for a bag or two when it’s time to walk the dog.

    • This is such a stupid arguement. They sell big boxes of doggie poop bags at the Dollar Store– I use these, and not only are they of remarkably good quality but they’re more appropriately sized for picking up little piles of poop.

      Or, if you can afford to spend a little more, they have them at pet stores too.

      Or, if you can’t even afford to spend a dollar every couple of months you can steal a bunch of produce bags from Giant. There’s no tax on those.

      • Is there a Dollar Store in the district? If so, where? I’d like to go there and get some poo bags for cheap!

        • They are all over. I think there is one over in AM and one down on 14th near the McDonalds.

          Beside that we just use some paper towels. Works pretty good for us then again we have a little dog.

          • I have small dogs, but I’d be afraid of it seeping through a paper towel (ew). And you can’t just tie it up and slip in in a pocket. I guess you’d just have to carry it around? Since I’m walking 2 I need that extra hand.

          • I think you’re referring to u street, not AM – and that dollar store is going out of business.

        • Too many to list them all here, so I suggest you do a google maps search from your neighborhood. They do tend to be in the less affluent areas though.

          I find myself out in VA every now and then, so I get them while I’m there. There’s plenty of public transit that will get you out to the suburban strip malls pretty quickly.

          I know you can order Dollar Tree items online as well, though I’ve never tried.

      • I wasn’t making an argument against the bag tax. I think it’s a great idea. BTW, next time you’re at the dollar store, buy a dictionary and look up the correct spelling of “argument”.

      • me

        Fine, but what about bags for cat litter for our 3 cats? Newspaper-sized or doggie doo-sized bags would not work for that. My husband and I have my parents send us bags upon bags from Ohio, because they shop often and the bags are free there.

    • saf

      Newspaper sleeves work well for this.

    • You are welcome to the 200+ Washington Post plastic bags I have in my kitchen cupboard.

  • I’m a fan of the bag tax, and appreciate that it’s helped me cut way down on plastic and paper bags that I don’t need.

  • For me, the 5 cent charge has not been enough of a burden to make me change my habits. I have no problem with reusable bags, and I now own several after some of the stores gave them out for free last January. However, I can’t remember a single occasion when I have remembered to bring the reusable bags with me to the store.

    I probably do less grocery shopping than the average person– once every two weeks, usually, and only 4-5 bags each time. So the “tax” amounts to maybe 10-15 cents per week, and I don’t even notice it.

    The only way the bag tax has changed my behavior is that occasionally when I’m buying only one or two items, now the cashier will ask if I want a bag instead of giving me one automatically. I usually say no if it’s something I can easily carry by itself.

    • This has been exactly my experience, although I grocery shop more than that. I maybe sometimes, remember to put them in the car, and then if I remember to bring them into the store, once they’re back inside my house, it’s all over again for months. But, it’s .05/bag and I use them to pick up dog poop, so whatever.

      • It has helped changed alot of shoppers behavior. Recent Wall Street Journal and a Wash. Post article have both cited that DC stores are ordering between 50-60% less plastic bags now. I don’t know where they got those numbers but even if its over estimated its still alot of plastic bags not being used.

        • I’m sure it has, I just don’t happen to be one of them. I’m not sure what the threshold would be for me that would get me to the point to remember bags all the time. Maybe a dollar? I don’t know.

        • It just makes me think about it, which is great, because I really don’t miss using disposable bags in the least.

  • At least 20% increase in dog poop on public sidewalks.

  • I dont see chipotle charging bag tax, but I have noticed the Subway in Dupont on Connecticut charge me 10 cents for the bag tax, even though there was just one bag.

    Now that was just total rip off. I didnt notice that until I looked at the receipt when I got back home. Although its just 5 cents, it is wrong for the business to charge extra 5 cents.

    And that place is run by Gujarati Indian people, so who knows if the bag tax is even sent to the DC government. Not being racist, but I am Indian and I know how some Indian businesses just rip off their customers in any way they can. And I am sure that 10cent thing was not a mistake, I bet they are doing it on every sale they make.

    • A business can charge what ever they want (over top of the 5 cent bag fee). They can set any store policy they want. The Indian place in Union Station charges 30 cents or so for to-go containers (there is a big sign near register explaing the charge for to go containers is due to a recent increase in cost). Ikea and Aldies have been charging for plastic bags for years.

    • hm, not being racist? surely being judgmental then, as identifying the specific ethnic background of the people seems otherwise unnecessary.

  • I went to the Giant on River Rd not long ago and was shocked at the number of people using either Giant’s paper or plastic bags. And then I realized I was in Maryland.

    Most of my grocery shopping is in the city where bringing your own bag seem to be the norm, not the exception.

    On another note, I usually carry around a Chico bag which will hold up to 25 lbs and when not in use fold into a 3″ pouch. Useful for unplanned stops at the store.

  • I expect that in a year or two, Tommy Wells and his Nanny Government allies will push for the bag tax to be expanded to all plastic bags. Because it’s for the Anacostia River – which is far more polluted with toxins, fecal matter, and trash than it is with plastic bags.

  • When I go to the grocery store, after purchasing my items, I just put the stuff in my cart then put everything in the trunk. No need for any bags at all. If something is frozen or I have fresh produce I use one of those green produce bags, they’re free. Not rocket science.

    • What do you do when you get home though? Carry the items in one by one? I don’t think this strategy would be practical for anyone unless they drive and have a driveway or personal garage.

      However, back when I used to shop at Aldi (you have to pay for the bags there) people would bring in cardboard box lids so they could easily carry out large piles of stuff.

      • you don’t have bags or boxes at home?

        • Let me see if I understand the process here…

          1. Load the items individually into the cart.
          2. Move the items individually from the cart to the car.
          3. Get home and move the items individually from the car to bags.
          4. Carry the bags inside and unload them.

          Why not save yourself some of that effort and bring the bags to the store? If you’re going there via car there’s no reason not to have them in the trunk instead of in the house.

          • I use this method if I dont have bags in the car already. Sometimes I forget to put the bags back in the car. I find that I really didnt need bags. And yes I do have a personal driveway and a garage to unload directly into the kitchen.

  • I was using reusables for groceries prior to the tax/fee, and usually carry a backpack with me when I’m out and about. Once, I picked up a loaf of bread from Firehook and didn’t want it to get smashed in my backpack and asked for a bag. The provided a paper bag and I was a bit surprised to see the bag tax, but wasn’t upset. I feel paper bags should be excluded from the fee, but it’s not a big deal nonetheless.

  • There is a serious misconception among readers here and in the general public that paper is better for the environment than plastic. The WP did a good piece on this a few years ago.
    Long story short, plastic is made of petroleum, is rarely recycled and clogs our rivers and oceans. That most people know. However, paper takes 5X more energy to make, results in 50X more wastewater, takes 80X as much energy to recycle, and actually doesn’t actually biodegrade very well once its in a landfill.

    So if we are interested in making people pay for the resulting waste, we are just as right to attach a fee to paper as we to plastic.

  • I love the whole “this will save the anacostia river” business as the hook that gets everyone agreeing we need the tax.

    Not the Potomac, of course. Just the anacostia.

    Given that i live in NW DC, and thus up river from the mouth of the anacostia, it is literally impossible for my garbage to end up flowing into the anacostia.

    But, this “bag tax” wasn’t really made for thinking people, it was made for DC.

    As for how it’s changed my habits, i buy most of my groceries in virginia now, to avoid the hassle (and also to deny the district some tax revenue).

    • Arguments like this always make me laugh. If you were buying your groceries in the district before the tax, there’s no way the extra effort of going to Virginia is worth less to you than 5 cents per bag.

      I guess for some people, the satisfaction they get from telling people that you’re no longer shopping in DC is what makes it worthwhile.

    • The money may be diverted to clean up the Annacostia, but the program benefits the entire city since there has been a major reduction in the use of bags which end up in streets, sewers and streams and solid waste collect throughout the city. If the result of the policy is responsible behavior by citizens, less money spend ton clean up and waste remove, and more money for the effort to clean the river this is a win-win by any measure.

      With regard to not thinking, you claim to be traveling from a local with no sales tax on groceries (DC) to one of the few states that does impose such a tax (VA). But if you’re all anti-responsible behavior, you probably enjoy guzzling gas any chance you get.

      • This only makes sense if you consider a decrease in the use of plastic bags to be a positive good.

        I don’t.

        It just means I have to carry a backpack around just in case i buy something, or else literally get nickeled and dimed.

        I’m not into getting nickeled and dimed. Plus it’s all the same just to drive over to virginia. I did all my shopping over there anyway until a couple of years ago, because the stores and overall shopping experience is better anyway.

        This is, of course, a perfectly logical and expected consequence of the tax: if you tax something, you’re going to get less of it. If you tax my use of plastic bags to convey my groceries, i’m going to buy fewer groceries here.

        Whether i buy my groceries in DC or VA means little to me, in the abstract. It’s a matter of cost and convenience. The bag tax is a loser on grounds of both cost and convenience.

        • “if you tax something, you’re going to get less of it”
          So you go to Virginia to pay their grocery tax instead of paying 5 or 10 cents by not paying the grocery tax in DC? It sounds like you are doing this for convenience but unless the grocery store there is cheaper, I don’t see how you are doing it for cost.

          • Nah, that guy isn’t doing it for convenience or cost. He’s losing money on gas driving to VA, and he’s wasting time getting their. Is additional traffic convenient?

            None of his arguments make a damn bit of sense. My theory is that this is the flirting phase of his future relationship with the suburbs. “Oh Virginia, your grocery stores are so NICE.” “Her — DC? Oh, she’s not that hot.” “Mmmm. I can’t believe you give these away for free.”

        • $50 of groceries in DC = $50 plus 3 bags = $50.15

          $50 of groceries in VA = $50 plus 4.5 sales tax and free bags= $52.25 (plus transportation and time)

          Yes folks, Krustie is a dimwit. What other kind of person would says things like “This only makes sense if you consider a decrease in the use of plastic bags to be a positive good.”

          • Right, traveling to VA to avoid a 10 or 20 cent bag fee so you can pay 4.5 sales tax on groceries in VA is about as dumb as it gets (VA is about the only state I know that has this regressive tax on groceries).

    • There is no tax on groceries in the district. if you lived in DC, you’d know that.

    • in your area of nw, where does the overflow sewage and stormwater go?

      i live in nw also, and it flows into the anacostia.

  • If i were homeless, i would camp out in front of Giant and sell plastic bags 2 for 5 cents.

  • I like the bag fee, and it makes sense to apply to paper as well.
    IMHO, The District makes a more meaningful impact on the environment by reducing carbon emissions. The primary sources are commercial and residential buildings, then maybe a quarter from vehicles (being non-industrial as we are, we don’t have to worry about that source). I’m not sure how much the District encourages LEED building design, but to the extent it does, that should go a long way in reducing our sources of carbon emissions.

  • The DC Green Building Act now requires that every new building of more than 50,000 square feet be designed and built to LEED standards (it also applies to major retrofits). This is among the first and most progressive such building requirements in the nation.

    DC was already well down the path to LEED before the GBAct, and as a result we are #2 in the nation in real numbers with more than 120 LEED certified buildings. And we’re BY FAR #1 in LEED buildings per capita.

  • what did people do before stores offered bags for free?
    must have been so primitive back ye olde days.

  • The “Great Garbage Patch”, or dead zone, which stretches 6,000 miles across the south Pacific and is twice the size of the U.S. is a perfect example of why a fee to insensitive people to use less plastic is a great idea.

    I’m sure Krustie the Clown also morns the loss of leaded paint and asbestos insulation… Well, let’s just be glad he’s not making decision for us.

  • Thank you for your interest in the District Bag Law. To answer your questions – since enactment of the Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Act (aka, the Bag Law), DDOE has collected approximately $1,528,200, primarily through the 5 cent fee on disposal carryout bags. As this is just the first year the law has been in place, we have only anecdotal evidence on disposable bag reduction. This evidence includes feedback from individual business owners, some of whom are reporting as much as a 50% reduction in bag usage at their stores. Additionally non-profits engaged in restoration and cleanup efforts along the Anacostia and its tributaries have reported a 60% reduction in the number of plastic bags collected at their watershed wide clean-up days.

    With respect to the question as to whether paper bags are included under the Bag Law, all businesses that sell food and alcohol must charge 5 cents for each paper and plastic disposable carryout bag provided at the point of sale. There is, however, a paper bag exemption for restaurants. This exemptions allows restaurants to provide paper bags for carryout food free of charge. Restaurants who also use plastic bags (e.g. bag paper and plastic together) must charge 5 cents for the plastic bags provided.

    Please note that we do not have the capacity to follow local list serves, so follow on questions should be directed to my attention at DDOE.

    Again, thank you for your interest and please feel free to contact me at 202-535-2679 or report a suspected noncompliant business to the Bag Law Tip Line found at

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