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How D.C. Beat the Plastic Bag Lobby

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Trash in Anacostia River
The heavily polluted Anacostia River, which runs through many of Washington's poorer neighborhoods, played a vital role in the city's successful campaign for a plastic bag fee.
Plastic manufacturers have spent millions to kill bag bans and fees across the country. In Washington, local savvy and social media won the day.

This summer, California looked ready to outlaw the plastic bag. A bill passed the state House, and Gov. Schwarzenegger supported it. Then the lobbyists showed up. The American Chemistry Council, which represents oil companies and plastic manufacturers, spent millions on automated phone calls to voters, contributions to state Senate campaigns, and television ads that mocked lawmakers for caring more about plastic bags than the state’s budget crisis.

On September 1, the California Senate rejected the plastic bag ban. It failed just like similar bag-reduction measures over the past three years in cities including Seattle, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, Dallas and Baltimore, and statehouses in Connecticut, Oregon, Maryland, Virginia and Massachusetts. Environmentalists say the ACC’s money and political muscle keep plastic-curbing measures  -- even when popular -- from becoming law.

But in Washington, D.C., home to the most powerful lobbyists in the world, the ACC’s power faltered. A five-cent fee on plastic and paper bags went into effect in January, levied in every business that sells food or alcohol. And it worked -- in just the first month, plastic bag use plummeted to 3.3 million at food retailers, the city reported, down from an average of 22.5 million a month in 2009.

The city’s success has more eco-conscious burgs green with envy. "How on our increasingly polluted earth did the nation’s capital wind up with a bag tax before Portland?" wrote a columnist for Oregon’s largest newspaper.

It’s a lesson in old-fashioned politicking and new-fangled social networking. And it didn’t hurt that proponents had a highly visible innocent victim to parade before voters: Washington’s "other river." At every turn, fee backers invoked the Anacostia, which flows past the city’s poorest neighborhoods and was notoriously choked with pollution.

City Councilman Tommy Wells, a six-foot-two-inch former social worker who looks like a fullback and talks like an old Chicago pol, has a special interest in the river. His district includes more Anacostia waterfront than any other. So when a 2008 city report showed that 47 percent of the trash in its tributaries and 21 percent in the main stream came from plastic bags, the time seemed right for a bag bill.

"I told my chief of staff to devise a campaign, not a legislative strategy," says Wells, one of 13 on the council. "If we’re trying to get this bill elected and get 13 votes, where do we go?"

In the early weeks of 2009, Wells’ staff began researching the success stories -- San Francisco enacted a ban in 2007, and several smaller California cities followed suit. But the larger, more recent trend was failure. In addition to the California defeat this summer, Seattle voters rejected a 20-cent fee last year. The ACC spent $1.4 million to fight the bag ban -- the most on a Seattle referendum in recent memory, according to Wayne Barnett, executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.

Wells decided against trying for an outright ban on plastic bags. If you ban plastic, you are left with paper bags -- an expensive alternative that poses serious environmental problems itself. Place a fee on paper and plastic, his staff recommended, and link the measure directly to the troubled Anacostia.

The "Skip the Bag, Save the River" campaign was born. The fee -- a modest nickel -- would fund the river clean-up.

Skip the Bag, Save the RiverAt about the same time, an unassuming graphic designer named Julie Lawson was trying to figure out what to do as the newly elected chairwoman of the DC Surfriders, a non-profit group of about 800 mostly young people who love to surf and want to keep the oceans clean. Surfriders in the nation’s capital have a three-hour drive to the ocean, so they can’t organize beach clean-ups as easily as, say, the Malibu chapter. But rivers feed the oceans, and when Lawson saw an article on the Internet about Wells’ bill, she and her Surfriders made it their project.

Lawson began volunteering her Surfrider friends for all sorts of tasks --from making pro-bill YouTube videos to designing campaign logos. The group, she says, spends a good deal of time on Facebook and Twitter and was more than happy to spread word of the bill and opportunities to campaign for it across the city. Surfriders blogged and filled the comment sections of online articles. They worked offline too, standing in front of supermarkets and asking shoppers to sign postcards in support of the fee and the river it would help to clean. Surfriders delivered 1,200 postcards to the City Council chairman -- in a reusable bag.

"When the Surfriders said, 'Let’s do a video for the bill,' it was on YouTube right away, and they were very effective using social media"” Wells says. Though the more traditional environmental groups also worked to move the fee forward, Wells says they couldn’t match the speed and energy of the younger, wired environmentalists.

Wells’s bill also drew the attention of David Alpert, 32-year-old former Google executive and the founder of "Greater, Greater Washington," a website about making the region more friendly to pedestrians and bike riders. The site gets 60,000 unique visits a month. Alpert, an emerging force in local politics, wrote repeatedly and glowingly of the bill, setting off lively online discussions among readers. He encouraged them to pressure their council members to vote for the fee and pressured the last holdout on the council, who eventually signed on to the measure.

Ultimately though, Wells knew that the fee’s fate depended less on its allies than on outmaneuvering its potential enemies, who could outspend the environmental community many times over. There was nothing to be done about the ACC, whose members actually make plastic bags. But there were others who might be swayed, and they needed to be on board before the bill was introduced.

"The first people I called in were the grocery stores," Wells says. They told him about their tight margins, their customers’ comfort with plastic bags, and how anti-bag campaigns often make them out to be the bad guys. Wells said he could avoid singling out the supermarkets by applying the fee to every business that sells food or alcohol. And part of the fee would go back to retailers to cover their costs.

Seemingly satisfied, the big chains agreed to sit out the bag debate. That included Safeway, which fought and helped defeat San Francisco’s proposed ban two years ago. "Our concern (in Washington) was that we didn’t want customers to think this was something we were forcing on them," said Craig M. Muckle, the manager of public affairs and government relations for Safeway supermarkets’ Eastern division. "We wanted people to understand that this isn’t a tax -- we’re helping to clean the river. This bill had a clear environmental purpose."

With his bill drafted, Wells moved on to the next potentially problematic group of stakeholders: the voters. In Seattle and elsewhere, the ACC had successfully branded anti-bag measures as a tax on those who could least afford it -- an argument with great potential in the nation’s capital. East of the Anacostia, in the city’s poorest wards, voters are sensitive to the idea that city policy is often dictated to them -- and not for their own good. There, as word of Wells’ bill spread, the ACC began to court potential allies, telling pastors and food bank workers that the fee unfairly burdened their congregants and clients.

"They seemed to be very methodical about going to churches east of the Anacostia," says Dottie Yunger, the Anacostia Riverkeeper. Wells asked Yunger to talk to those same clergy and keep them from coming out against the ban. She had a powerful connection with the pastors that the ACC couldn’t match -- Yunger is a United Methodist minister. It wasn’t long ago, she told her fellow clergy, that believers were baptized in the Anacostia’s waters. She and another pastor testified together for the bill at its city council hearing.

Wells also asked council member Marion Barry to endorse the bag fee. Elsewhere in the country, the former D.C. mayor is best known for getting caught smoking crack cocaine, but many in Washington’s downtrodden wards consider him their stalwart defender, and his support meant something in Anacostia. Barry signed on immediately. Wells’s coalition was complete.

"Tommy Wells did a masterful job of building constituencies of people who would otherwise not have come together," says Yunger, the riverkeeper. "He went to the supermarkets early on. He went to the environmental groups early on. The seniors. The churches. The poor."

Three months before the critical vote, the ACC sent a lobbyist to city hall. But by then, 11 of the 13 council members had followed Barry’s lead and were ready to vote for Wells’s bill. In June 2009, it passed the council unanimously. Since it went into effect at the beginning of this year, plastic bags in the D.C. waters of the Anacostia have fallen 66 percent from the year before, according to a local environmental group that hosts an annual river clean-up.

Keith Christman, managing director of plastics markets at the ACC, says the outcome in D.C. might have been different had the question been put to a referendum, as it was in Seattle, where the lobbying group had time to spend money and influence voters. "It did happen very quickly" in Washington, he says.

"We were prepared for a major onslaught" from the ACC, Wells says, "and we were surprised with how unprepared they were."

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Lauren Markoe is a freelance writer and editor. As a newspaper reporter, she covered local, state and national politics. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and two children.
Great article on how you can occasionally win and beat the bad guys. We may look back in a few decades and see this as a turning point for the Anacostia River. Making people pay for bags makes sense. Giving away a bag to every customer spreads the costs of those bags to everyone...and that's socialism. Let's have an ownership society where people either own their own reusable bag (they cost a whole 99 cents ya know) or they pay rightly for a disposable bag. It is good policy all around.
The article says that a plastic ban tax is a burden on the lower class, but even if they had to purchase a few reusable tote bags they made out. Those people then have reusable bags they can use for just about anything. The tax isn't forcing them to go out and spend $20 every month, maybe $20 max for a yearly supply of bags that could be used year over year.
Kudos to D.C. for doing what I hope one day all cities can do... fight the big lobbying firms and win.