Your Guide to the D.C. Bag Fee

A one-stop shop for all the facts on the new fee

You’ve heard about it: a new 5-cent charge for each paper or plastic bag you take home from a D.C. store. But do you know all the rules?

We break it down for you so you can understand why you are forking over all your nickels when you go shopping in the District.

What Is It?

The new charge is not a tax; it is a fee that is part of the Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Act of 2009. It went into effect on Jan. 1, 2010. The D.C. Council passed the law in hopes to protect the environment in the city, in particular the Anacostia River. That’s why most of the fee collected on each bag will go to a fund called, what else, but the Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Fund. From that fund the District hopes to launch a public education campaign to educate people on D.C.’s environment, provide reusable carryout bags to District residents, create youth recycling programs, monitor pollution and much more.

Where Will You Find It?

Anytime you go to a place that sells food, chances are you will run into this fee. In addition -- any place that has a liquor license will enforce the nickel charge, as well. You’re probably thinking, “Wow, that has to be a ton of places in D.C.” Well you’re right. More than 6,000 business in the District will be charging the fee.

The first, and obvious, spot you’ll find the fee: the grocery store. Five cents for each bag -- paper or plastic. But you’ll encounter the fee at restaurants, too.

But here’s where it can get confusing:  At places with a restaurant license (basically places that have seating), there’s an exemption on paper bags. So if you take your food in a (paper) doggie bag to go, there's no fee. But if they are packing your leftovers in a plastic bag, there can be a fee. Now at take-out places, or places with a deli license, you will be charge the fee on both paper and plastic.

But it doesn’t end there. As we said before, the fee applies at all places that are allowed to sell food. Think, for instance, department stores. They sell chocolates and candies there, so -- you guessed it -- they must charge the fee, whether you buy food or not with your purchase. Same goes for a place like Borders; you buy a book, you are going to face the fee because Borders sells food.

Still Confused And Need Help?

Don't worry, you're not alone.  Even the businesses themselves are confused and still need time to figure it all out. 

The District Department of the Environment is trying to get out the word. There have already been reusable bag giveaways in D.C. to try and help facilitate the change. And the department tells us there will be more. To find out about the bag giveaways, to read the bill, and to ask any questions you can think of, visit

You can also read the official legislation here.

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