This plan by the DC council to start charging consumers 5 cents for every plastic and paper bag used to carry home purchased goods seems half-assed at best.

I get the move by cities to charge nominal fees to discourage the use of environmentally destructive plastic bags. I really do. Those little suckers are choking rivers (not to mention costing cities  money in environmental fines) even as I type. But in most cases, people are given the free alternative of paper. DC council members, by contrast, are looking to charge for paper bags as well in an effort to get local merchants to support the plan. Every paper bag costs merchants 3 cents more than plastic, so area retailers are understandably concerned about the shift in demand toward paper that a plastic-only fee would prompt. 

But it seems to me there is a bigger political risk in ticking off all voters by announcing that, in these hideous economic times, everyone will now be shelling out just a little more money every time they buy a bottle of cough syrup and a pack of Oreos. (If you don't think people care about such nickel-and-diming, consider how berzerk they go every time someone whispers the phrase "gas tax.") And considering how many bags people bring home every month from the grocery store, the drug store, the convenience store, the liquor store, etc...those nickels could start to add up.  

To avoid burdening poor residents, the council says it will distribute reusable shopping bags to the less affluent. Even assuming the District could handle the logistics, the plan seems flawed. How many bags would each person get? How often would they be distributed? Who would be eligible? What happens when Granny loses her bag or it gets torn or filthy or some asshole steals it because he lost his? How long would it take to get another one? And what about people who make one or two big grocery runs each month instead of multiple small ones? Are they really going to march off to the Safeway with two dozen reusable bags stuffed in their purse?

I understand the council's eagerness not to burden merchants. And I can see searching for some other way to help defray their costs, such as letting them keep a larger portion of the fees they collect from plastic users. (Already, the city and retailers plan to split the take.) Sure, doing that would reduce the money the District would be collecting to help clean up the Anacostia river (the original impetus for the bill). But the larger goal here is to cut down on the number of plastic bags that wind up in the river going forward, yes? Plus, the District wouldn't have to spend all that money on its reusable-bags-for-the-poor scheme.

I'm not sure what the best course of action would be. But I'm pretty certain the council is asking for trouble by informing residents that it is about to start charging them for plastic bags because they destroy the environment--and oh, yeah, while they're at it they're gonna charge for paper bags too so that shoppers won't financially overburden their local CVS. (And that's not even taking into consideration how furious the paper industry is going to be.)

Honestly, I'm kinda hoping this plan proves so cumbersome and broadly unpopular that it dies. There's just something about it that smells like overreach.

--Michelle Cottle