Photo by nadi0.

JTS wrote, “I was just at the Giant on 8th street, and the policy seems to be having a positive impact already.

"The cashiers are informing customers of the fee, and the customers in front of me (express line) just decided to carry the 3 or 4 items they had instead of using a bag. No stress, no complaints. In the five minutes in line, it seemed like probably 10 or 20 bags were not used where they otherwise would have been. I think that is change for the better.”

The District Department of the Environment has a FAQ about the law (via Housing Complex), answering questions including some that came up here. The bags that enclose produce don’t count, nor do paper bags for taking food home from a restaurant that has indoor seating. However, there will be a charge for bags from takeout-only food establishments.

Bread for the City is disappointed that needy residents aren’t getting as many reusable bags as initially promised. Some donors have stepped in and provided extra bags.

The Washington Post did residents a disservice with its article on fees that lumped this together with the new Saturday parking charges. The parking fees were a budget-closing measure, plain and simple, but this was not; the law specifically allocates all revenue for environmental cleanup. 

Some of you fear that the Mayor or Council would try to raid this revenue stream for other budget needs in the future. Perhaps it would have been safer, but more complex, to create a separate authority that received the money, keeping it out of the political process. However, we can ensure nothing happens to the money by holding elected officials to their promise to use the revenue for environmental cleanup.

Nobody has yet suggested breaking that promise, and hopefully they will never even contemplate such an action. The Council did twice uphold the promise that revenue from performance parking would go to the local neighborhoods around the ballpark and in Columbia Heights, despite the Mayor’s attempt to reprogram that money in the last two rounds of budget cuts.

Other commenters decried this entire enterprise as just another government tax. I see this as something very different. Classical economics says that markets are the most efficient way of setting prices and matching buyers and sellers, but there are several key ways markets can break down. One of the most common is externalities, when the behaviors of the buyer and seller negatively impact an uninvolved third party. And the most well-known externality is pollution.

In the ideal economic world, externalities would not exist. If the actions of a buyer and seller harmed me, I would be able to extract compensation. But with bags, society incurs two costs. First, recycling each bag costs the city money, which all taxpayers share. And second, if the bags blow out of recycle bins or people discard them on the street, they end up in rivers and create a cost to everyone in cleaning them up.

The best way to account for these externalities is by charging at the moment they occur. DPW could inventory everyone’s trash and present a monthly bill for the direct cost or environmental impact of disposing of the waste, and cameras or little RFID tags could track every polluting bag back to its most recent owner. But this is impractical and likely undesirable for privacy reasons.

A much simpler solution is to embed the cost of cleanup in the cost of the good itself. While you could reuse a bag multiple times, sooner or later it will become trash and will incur some disposal cost. If the end user pays the disposal cost at the time of purchase, it can raise the money necessary for that disposal and also create an incentive to minimize unnecessary use.

It’s true that this doesn’t distinguish between those whose bags end up in the river and those whose bags go directly to recycling, and that’s suboptimal. But there is a cost even for recycling, and having shoppers share the cost of the river cleanup proportional to their bag consumption is at least a few steps closer to the ideal than having all taxpayers share that cost.

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.