Sometimes a little prodding in the pocketbook is what it takes to make social change work.
In 2010 I made the noble decision to not use disposable, plastic bags when shopping. When I say “noble decision” what I mean is “the government made me.”
In January of that year Washington, D.C., did something bold. It decided to charge for plastic bags. The law was the first of its kind in the nation, and it stated stores that sell food and alcohol are required to charge a five cent fee for each disposable bag. Stores keep one to two cents and while the remainder of the fee goes to the Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Fund.
When the law first came into effect there was a major period of adjustment. A large portion of the D.C. population doesn’t own a vehicle. Between awful traffic, lack of parking, and pure expense of car ownership many people decide to use public transportation, walk, ride a bike, or taxi. So, the Bag Law had a crazy side effect. Suddenly people had to have a bag with them at all times. We couldn’t just throw a bunch of reusable bags in the back of a car, forget about them, and decide to pull them out in a grocery store parking lot.
We were a constantly talking about bags. In a city deeply embroiled in government issues you could walk into any store, turn to the stranger next to you, and strike up a conversation about the Bag Law. And everyone had an opinion.
I would go to a grocery store and count the number of couples having a “discussion” about bags. It typically went like this:
Person 1: Wait, did you bring bags?
Person 2: No, did you?
Person 1: I specifically told you to bring the bags before we left the house.
Person 2: Well, I forgot.
Person 1: How could you forget?
Person 2: I WILL JUST PAY THE FIVE CENTS, SHEILA.*
(*Substitute any name of any gender.)
It was glorious theater.
It was a logistical pain in the butt.
And then something incredible happened that rarely happens in government.
Carrying reusable bags went from an inconvenience to something that, for the most part, is accepted. We incorporate it into the daily rhythm of life. If bags are forgotten at home it is a momentary problem instead of THE END OF THE WORLD and a gnashing of teeth drama that was performed when the law was first enacted. Instead, it is another logistic to think about at the start of the day. Grab your keys, phone, wallet, bag and you are out the door.
It pains me that it took government interference for me to even notice the problem of plastic bags. I never questioned it. I never took the time to think, “how can I reduce waste when I shop?” even though I care about the environment. I recycle, turn off the water when I brush my teeth, take public transportation – all mindful acts of thinking of our planet. Yet, shopping for everyday items is so mundane I never considered the environmental impact of that experience. Even more so, I never even considered the link between plastic bags, petroleum, and politics.
The goal of the Bag Law was to change behavior in a positive way. The tax is a pinch that is paid in moments of forgetfulness – for running out the door without bags, for not thinking through the logistics of the day. With every purchase now I am asked, “do you need a bag?” and many times I am able to say no. That question, though, is a reminder of conscious decision making.
The Bag Law shows that government has the power to positively impact the environment in a way that is immediate. It’s a reminder that human behavior can be changed, and that small choices adds up to big relief. I would like to think that it would ultimately have crossed my mind to bring bags with me, but I don’t know if that is honestly true. The law beat me to the punch.
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