Plastic Bag Surcharge: Does It Work?

Posted on September 22, 2010 by Courtney

Remember when we talked about the possibility of a plastic bag surcharge in grocery stores? A few cities have floated the possibility and a few have enacted a complete ban on these flimsy, disposable bags that seem ubiquitous in stores. Others have imposed an extra charge for the bags in an effort to make people consider using reusable bags for their groceries.

You may wonder how these environmental initiatives have turned out for those cities. I’m pleased to tell you that in Washington, D.C., where there’s a five-cent tax on plastic shopping bags, their use has declined by more than half.

The Wall Street Journal reports that this small penalty has led to big change. No one quite expected such a sharp drop in plastic bag use, but it turns out that when people are faced with paying extra for something, they’ll make changes. And when those changes also benefit the environment, everybody wins. (Except, of course, the companies that manufacture plastic bags.)

It’s pretty amazing that something as small as a nickel per bag can make such a huge difference. In D.C., one penny of the five-cent surcharge goes to pay for the bag, while the other four cents go into a fund to clean up the Anacostia River. Other places have gotten wind of the success of the surcharge, too — Brownsville, Texas, is charging people an extra dollar for each transaction that requires a disposable plastic bag, and American Samoa is imposing a full-on ban starting next year.

What do you think of a plastic bag surcharge? Would you support it in your town? If so, how would you go about getting a plastic bag tax in place?


  1. Impacting the consumer’s wallet is the quickest way to encourage change. I would get behind the surcharge. I pretty much always bring my own reusable bags, though, so I would pay maybe a quarter a year.

    September 22nd, 2010 at 6:37 am
    Comment by Julie
  2. I’m embarrassed to say that I often forget to bring my bags – and they’re right in the trunk of my car! Sheesh! If my negligence had an influence on my bottom line, however, I’m pretty sure I’d start remembering!

    I’m ok with the practice of the warehouse stores. They flatout don’t provide bags. Period. We just roll out all our goodies in the cart and load them in the car. No biggie.

    September 22nd, 2010 at 8:51 am
    Comment by Lynn
  3. This is a great idea! I wish they would enact it here in NH.

    I wonder, though. Why is the municipality enacting the surcharge and not the retailer? Seems to me if a grocery store wanted to bring down overhead the best way to do it is to charge for the plastic bags.

    Also, what happens when enough people get sick of paying 5 extra cents for each bag and start bringing their own? The river clean up is going to be out the revenue the plastic bag use has been generating.

    September 22nd, 2010 at 9:25 am
    Comment by Howling Hill
  4. I love Lynn’s comment about warehouse stores – I don’t understand why we even need bags in stores. I’d love to just not use bags when I forget mine at the regular grocery store. And I like the idea of charging for them. I think it would make everyone more accountable and more aware of needing to use plastic bags sparingly.

    September 22nd, 2010 at 9:36 am
    Comment by Allie
  5. I reuse those plastic bags by lining my trash baskets with them (the trash collectors don’t like unbagged trash because on windy days, paper trash tends to fly all over the place), so I would still want the bags even if charged for them, but ESPECIALLY if 80% of the surcharge went into a fund to clean up a river. Our local rivers are AWFUL!

    September 22nd, 2010 at 10:36 am
    Comment by Abby
  6. There’s no tax on them where I live. But some big stores have been adding small surcharges.

    There is one situation where I think the move has paid off well:

    In the past if I was making a small purchase that I could carry and didn’t need a bag people at the store used to put it in a bag anyway. Sometimes if I was concentrating I would tell them not to, but if my mind was wandering and I didn’t notice I’d end up with a plastic bag I didn’t need.

    But now they always ask and I always decline.

    September 22nd, 2010 at 7:24 pm
    Comment by Thomas
  7. And then there’s Target’s approach: They knock off a dime (or some odd pittance) from your bill if you bring your own bags or otherwise refuse theirs. Kind of a carrot rather than a stick, although you can just turn it around and say that they add that amount to bag-takers’ receipts and just don’t tell them. Their way, they look like the good guy.

    September 22nd, 2010 at 9:12 pm
    Comment by mickey

Leave a comment

Tip of the Day

If It Doesn’t Smell, Don’t Wash It


According to Real Simple, if every American made an effort to launder less — cutting out just one load of laundry a week per household — we’d save enough water to fill seven million swimming pools each year.

So if it looks clean, and it smells clean, call it clean and wear it again. Consider hanging worn clothes out on your clothesline to freshen them up between wearings.

  • Stay-ad

    Support This Site