On Jan. 1, an extra expense was added to the grocery bills of district shoppers when the D.C. Council passed a bill that allowed stores to charge five cents per bag used in stores.
The law, known as the Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Act, requires grocery stores, drug stores, liquor stores, restaurants and food vendors in D.C.to charge for the use of all plastic disposable carry-out bags. The fee is meant to discourage the use of plastic bags, which a 2008 study found were the most prevalent pieces of trash in the tributary streams of the Anacostia River.
But many customers were surprised to learn that they had to pay for bags at stores like Macy’s and Filenes Basement, two clothing stories.
Macy’s and Filene’s Basement are not grocery stores. Neither of the stores sell liquor, and there are no restaurants adjacent to their lingerie sections.
Because Macy’s at Metro Center houses a vending area for Godiva Chocolatier, the department store has a license to sell food in its establishment, making it responsible for charging for bags under the river cleanup law. All Macy’s stores charge the bag fee.
The Filene’s Basement, located just around the corner at 1133 Connecticut Ave. N.W., doesn’t sell food at all, but because the store’s parent company has a food vending license, it is also required to charge for bags.
“We don’t have candy here, but because the franchise has the paperwork, we have to charge for bags,” a store representative explained via telephone.
Phillip Jones, a Howard student and former sales associate at Macy’s, does not think that the department store should charges for bags.
“I believe that it is unjust and unfair,” Jones said. “The only reason they charge is because they sell chocolate, which in my opinion, is not a valid enough reason. Very rarely do people even come in and purchase chocolate.”
Jones said while he worked at Macy’s over the summer, customers would not understand why they were being charged for bags at the department store.
“Some customers would be outraged and want an explanation,” Jones said. “I would have to tell them I understood that they were upset, but there was nothing I could do.”
A Macy’s representative said the store is just following the law.
“We’re held accountable for charging for plastic bags because we sell candy and cookies,” said John Watson, assistant store manager at the downtown Macy’s. “We’re being told to do this by the D.C. government. It’s not Macy’s policy.”
At Macy’s, the reaction to the store charging for bags has been mixed, Watson adds.
“In the beginning, the law was at the education level—not many people really understood what was being charged and what wasn’t,” Watson said. “I think everyone at this point has accepted it.”
For every bag purchased, businesses keep one cent and the remaining money goes toward the Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Fund. Under the law, if a business offers a bag credit incentive, it can keep two cents from every sale of a plastic bag.
The bag credit incentive is a provision of the law that allows stores to credit customers at least five cent for bringing their own reusable bag to the store.
According to Jeffery Seltzer, director of storm water management at the District Department of the Environment, the agency had collected approximately $1.3 million as of August through the fee on disposable bags and has distributed almost $228,000 on public education, business outreach and providing reusable bags to D.C. residents.
“Studies have found that the vast majority of trash within the Anacostia watershed was plastic bags that came from food and alcohol purchases,” Seltzer said. “Plastic bags that come from non-food and alcohol establishments usually are not discarded as litter. At this time, we do not plan to expand the bag bill to all retail establishments.”