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The Cost of Carryout
Two D.C. and Maryland legislators say a 5-cent tax on carryout bags is a necessary price for keeping local waterways clean.
Takeaway food subject to extra tax.

Quick-serve customers in Washington, D.C., and Maryland might have to forgo their carryout bags soon. Councilman Tommy Wells, of Washington, D.C., and Delegate Alfred Carr, of Montgomery County, Maryland, have worked together since February to pen a pair of bills that propose placing a 5-cent tax on paper and plastic bags in their communities.

“The intent of the legislation is to clean up the waterways in Maryland and in the region,” Carr says. “We have a problem with a lot of trash ending up in waterways and a lot of that trash is plastic bags that have been discarded by consumers.”

Carr's solution is House Bill 1210, the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Consumer Retail Choice Act of 2009, while Wells' is Bill 18-0150, the Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Act of 2009. Each would require stores that typically provide customers paper or plastic takeout bags to start charging a 5-cent tax per bag. That includes retail and grocery stores, but some of the biggest offenders are quick-serves. Paper bags were included in the tax to accommodate store owners' concerns about the cost of replacing plastic bags with more environmentally friendly paper ones.

“Today a bag is offered without question,” Carr says. “They almost look at you funny if you're just buying one thing and you refuse a bag.”

If his bill passes, he hopes that will change and that consumers will have an incentive to carry their own reusable bags.

While the bills call for store owners to pass the expense of the tax onto consumers, critics argue they will put a financial burden on store owners, as well. Implementing new practices and POS technology to accommodate the tax could be costly. Add that to the chance the bill could decrease business in an already cash-strapped economy, and suddenly the outlook is grim for restaurants.

To compensate owners for the cost of applying the tax, 2 cents of it will be given back to the store. The rest will go to waterway restoration and reusable bags for the community.

“I've talked to several of my customers, and they're hoping that it won't pass,” says says Oji Abbott, owner of Oohhs & Aahhs Gourmet Deli‎ located on U Street in Washingon, D.C.

About 85-90 percent of his customers use takeout bags.

“It's like, 'I come here, I spend money buying food, and now you're telling me I've got to buy bags, too?' It's almost unfair,” he says of his concerned customers.

I've talked to several of my customers, and they're hoping that it won't pass.

Like many area restaurant owners, Abbott is skeptical the tax would affect customers' habits.

“I don't know if any customers are going to say, 'I don't need a bag, it's all right,'” he says. “I can't imagine that.”

According to Wells' blog, however, similar initiatives in other locations have cut down on single-use bags by as much as 90 percent.

And Carr says the bill is more generous than the one proposed last year to ban all plastic bags.

“The support has been very strong in Maryland and also from fellow representatives,” he says.

A similar bill failed in Virginia recently.

“It's one of those things where we'll just wait and see,” Abbott says.

Robin Hilmantel is an editorial intern at QSR.