No record survives to tell us how 19th -century Judge John Forest Dillon transported his groceries. But thanks to his famous “Dillon rule,” Arlington County in 2011 is barred from enacting a tax to discourage use of polluting plastic grocery bags unless Richmond gives the okay.
It didn’t. But momentum is building for a new possibility. County Board member Barbara Favola is enthused about the increasingly popular idea of a voluntary nickel tax to protect the environment from nondegradable petrochemical litter while adding a few shekels to the revenue stream.
This week Arlington leaders are meeting with Rep. Jim Moran as he prepares for an Earth Day reintroduction of his “Plastic Bag Reduction Act.” If enacted, his federal bill would permit jurisdictions nationwide to enact a five-cent fee on “single use” bags from grocery stores and other retail outlets to encourage use of reusable bags. Proceeds would go to land and water conservation programs, to trim the national debt and to cover costs for local businesses.
Such a deal, of course, has been in effect in the District since Jan. 1, 2010. Though initial polls had D.C. consumers divided, the first month of the tax curbed use of disposable bags by 50 percent, and many folks have since embraced the BYOB lifestyle. The capital city dedicates three or four cents from each nickel for clean-up crews to reverse the blight that tossed durable bags visit upon the Anacostia River. Businesses keep 1 cent (or two if they offer a rebate when customers bring their own bags).
A thoughtful documentary called “Bag It” (one of two with that title) made in Boston asks, “Can Americans break their 100-billion-plastic-bag-a-year habit?” It examines the harm the indestructible bags do to fish, seals and turtles, as well as the cleanup costs they impose on taxpayers by clogging storm drains, damaging trees and littering the land. Recyclers often reject petrochemical bags, the film notes, and it explores alternatives of paper and reusable bags.
Other countries that have turned to bag fees, according to Moran’s website, include Ireland, Denmark, South Africa, China, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, Bangladesh and Butan, as well as jurisdictions such as San Francisco, Delhi and South Australia.
This is hardly a slam-dunk issue. Shopping involves highly personal habits (Newsflash!) Many of us would feel inconvenienced, even manipulated.
The Arlington Chamber of Commerce came out foursquare against the idea when a version was introduced in the General Assembly this session by Del. Adam Ebbin. “While both the use of multi-use bags (such as those made of canvas) and the recycling of plastic bags should be encouraged,” a statement said, “the chamber does not support a tax on plastic bags.”
While Montgomery County debated the tax recently, an Elkridge, Md.-based company called Advance Polybag warned the tax would jeopardize 140 jobs. Sure as clockwork, the Tea Party will lump the proposal in with fascist regulations on our choice of lightbulbs, courtesy of “the nanny state.”
But once most shoppers tuned in, I would expect new fashion competition in personal grocery-carrying paraphernalia. Besides, it’s not really a tax as much as an optional fee. To avoid it, all you need do is get in the habit of keeping reusable bags in your car. And if you forget, you simply pay to save the planet, which is worth a (non) plugged nickel.
Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at email@example.com