WASHINGTON -- Shoppers using paper or plastic bags to haul home their groceries will likely face a fee in Washington, which is poised to join a small number of U.S. cities targeting disposable bags as a way to reduce trash.
The D.C. Council gave preliminary approval Tuesday to legislation requiring shoppers to pay 5 cents per disposable bag at grocery, drug, convenience and liquor stores. Shoppers can avoid the fee by bringing their own bags.
The unanimous vote almost certainly assures the bill will win final passage later this month. If it's signed by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, the fees would take effect in January.
A number of jurisdictions have considered bans or fees on disposable bags as a way to reduce garbage in waterways, parks and streets. But many proposals, such as those in neighboring cities like Baltimore and Annapolis, Md., have foundered amid criticism from retailers.
In 2007, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban plastic grocery bags. And plastic bags will be banned from stores in Los Angeles beginning in July 2010. Shoppers will be charged 25 cents for a paper or biodegradable bag.
"Anybody doing any kind of legislation on disposable bags is in the forefront of this issue," said Darby Hoover, a resource specialist with the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council.
Most of the money raised by bag fees would go toward cleaning the Anacostia River, which is polluted by 20,000 tons of trash each year, District officials said. Plastic bags account for almsot half the garbage in the river and its tributaries, Councilwoman Mary Cheh said.
"The Anacostia River is one of the most polluted in the country," Cheh said. "The level of trash in the river has become so bad that if nothing is done, the district could be fined tens of millions of dollars by the EPA."
About 270 million disposable paper or plastic bags are used in grocery, drug, convenience and liquor stores in D.C. each year. That number would drop by half the first year the fee is adopted and by 80 percent within four years, officials estimate.
The fee is initially expected to raise about $3.5 million annually for the Anacostia River cleanup, with the amount shrinking as more residents use their own bags.
Some money would be used to install screens on storm drains to collect garbage. An amendment also calls for D.C. to raise money for the cleanup effort by offering commemorative license plates to residents at a cost of $25.
In response to concerns the fees would place an unfair burden on the poor, the city plans to distribute reusable bags to low-income households.