Early numbers are in from Montgomery County

Montgomery County’s bag fee earned $154,000 for the county’s Water Quality Improvement Fund in January. This figure is based on tax receipts from many county retailers, and is the remainder after the retailers kept their portion (one cent from every five).

But what does this number really mean? At this point, not much. One month is nowhere near enough time to measure behavior change; there is a learning curve for shoppers and businesses. Not all businesses have even submitted tax receipts yet because their collections haven’t reached the required threshold. It’s just too early. Washington, DC, never intended to scientifically measure the before-and-after until two years in–that study will occur later this year.

In the meantime, we can compare it to early results in DC and make some hypotheses, as the laws are quite similar. In January 2010, the DC bag fee generated $150,000 for the Anacostia River Cleanup Fund–approximately the same amount. But Montgomery County’s population is more than 50% larger than DC’s, approximately 970,000 residents to DC’s 600,000. Granted, the daytime (employee) population is higher than the resident population in DC, but generally speaking we can interpolate that fewer plastic bags were used per capita in Montgomery County in January 2012 than were used in DC in January 2010.

We know in DC that 75% of residents ultimately say they have changed their behavior and use fewer plastic bags. The quick adoption of reusable bags meant that the fee did not generate as much revenue as was originally expected–less than $2 million the first year compared to the expected $3.5 million. This is a success, because it meant more people used reusable bags, having a greater impact on litter reduction and waste.

Montgomery County subsequently scaled back their revenue expectations even further, estimating only $1.2 million in revenue the first year. They expected that behavior would change even more quickly since people are already familiar with the program in DC. Since we also expect monthly revenues to decline over time, this first month’s amount is on track with the estimate and shows that Montgomery County consumers are indeed beginning to make the switch from single-use disposable to reusing–or even refusing–bags when shopping.

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