A bird caught in a plastic bag.

Many of the plastic bags from supermarkets and other stores end up in the Anacostia River, clogging up small tributaries, killing fish and birds, and eventually ending up in tiny pieces in our food supply. Next week, Councilmember Tommy Wells will introduce a bill to push shoppers and stores to use reusable bags instead of the disposable plastic bags. Delegate Al Carr of Montgomery County plans to introduce a similar bill. DC and Maryland should pass these bills. You can show your support at TrashFreeAnacostia.com.

20,000 tons of trash enter the Anacostia each year, and according to a recent report, 80% of that is plastic bags, bottles, wrappers, and Styrofoam. DC spends millions every year to clean up this trash, and the EPA recently announced it will start fining DC for exceeding pollution limits on the river. Currently, we exceed those almost every time it rains.

Recycling isn’t enough. DC started recycling plastic bags this past year, but taxpayers still pay for every recycled bag. The companies that take the recyclables don’t make enough from the bags to cover their costs. And despite strong recycling efforts, more and more bags keep ending up in the river.

Already, many stores sell low-cost reusable bags. Some, like Giant, even give a credit if you bring back old bags instead of using new bags. Costco stopped offering bags years ago, and discount food stores like ALDI and Save-A-Lot, and even IKEA, charge customers a nominal fee for every bag. When IKEA started charging, their bag usage dropped 97% in the first year. Ireland instituted a fee for bags in grocery stores and other retail shops, and saw a 94% reduction in bag use within a year.

I usually bring reusable Whole Foods bags to buy groceries at Safeway. Unless I specifically put the bags on top of the food so the checker can’t miss them, he or she usually blithely starts stuffing groceries into bags, often only half full, double bagged, or both. We need a small incentive to encourage shoppers to remember the reusable bags and to get checkers to ask.

Wells’ bill will charge a 5 cent fee for paper or plastic bags from any stores with Retail Food Establishment licenses or Class A or B liquor licenses. It only applies to “carryout” bags, the ones you get at the checkout; the thin bags you put lettuce in or the ones the deli counter uses to wrap turkey don’t count. To encourage stores to comply, they get to keep 1 cent. And if they give shoppers a 5 cent or greater discount for bringing in old bags, as Giant does, they can keep 2 cents.

The rest of the money goes into an Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Fund, which will pay for cleaning up the river, educational programs, enforcement, and giving out free reusable bags to elderly and low-income residents.

This program will save retailers money because they won’t have to buy bags. It’ll save taxpayers by cutting down on recycling costs, environmental cleanup costs, and EPA fines. It’ll improve our long-term health and protect the environment.

Please tell your Councilmembers to support this bill for our environment, our health and our wallets at TrashFreeAnacostia.com.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.