Is the Montgomery County bag law working?

There’s been a lot of chatter lately the Montgomery County disposable bag law, questioning whether the current model is actually reducing litter or just raising money for county coffers.

As background, the Montgomery County law (effective 2012) is fairly similar to the one in DC (effective 2010)–both require stores to charge five cents for plastic or paper shopping bags at the point of sale, and remit most of the fee to the local government for environmental improvement projects.

DC did extensive research in 2012 and 2013 on the effectiveness of their law, demonstrating that residents were using 60 percent fewer bags than before the law, and that stores were giving out 50 percent fewer bags. The research also showed that the law was extremely popular with both residents and store owners; only 16 percent of residents and 8 percent of retailers opposed it.

Data from volunteer stream cleanups in DC have shown a 72 percent decrease in the number of bags removed from streams, parks, and other cleanup sites since the laws took effect. Montgomery County reductions are similar. These reductions haven’t emerged in any other jurisdiction in the region, so it’s likely the bag laws have created this effect.

Montgomery County hasn’t done any research on the effectiveness of their law, and councilmembers perceive public opinion to be low. The problem is, policymakers usually only hear from people with complaints; if you’re happy with the status quo, do you feel motivated to call and tell someone that? Probably not.

The County law also suffered a public relations setback early on, when revenues came back much higher than expected. We identified the reason why–the estimates were based on a faulty calculation of how many bags residents were using before the law took effect. You can read all the details about that here.

Revenue isn’t an accurate measure of the law’s effectiveness anyway. In 5 years, more businesses have opened. New residents have moved to the county. And it’s likely that more businesses are correctly reporting their fee collections now. Of course revenues would go up.

There are three key differences between the DC and Montgomery laws, though, that could be holding it back:

  • The DC law only applies in stores that sell food, while the Montgomery law applies in all stores. The laws are intended to spur behavior change, and people are more familiar with the idea of bringing reusable bags to grocery stores than they are with taking them to the mall. It doesn’t mean it can’t happen, but that particular behavior change needs a lot more educational support than it has received. We successfully defeated an effort to scale back the scope of the law in 2013.
  • Fees collected in DC go into a specific fund, the Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Fund. Funds are directed to programs to reduce and remove trash in the Anacostia River as well as programs to support the river’s restoration. The program got some bad press a couple of years ago when a reporter couldn’t see how field trips to teach kids about the environment connected to long-term environmental protection, but in general we know that the public prefers knowing exactly where their funds are being spent.
    The Montgomery County funds, on the other hand, go into a much larger pot of money, mostly derived from stormwater utility fees. The Water Quality Improvement Fund fulfills the mission of the stormwater fee, paying for rain gardens, pervious pavers, green streets, and other construction projects to reduce polluted runoff into all of the county’s waters. It’s a whole lot harder for residents to see how their bag fees are directly reducing trash pollution. (It doesn’t help that it gets some of the negative connotation of the “rain tax.”)
  • Finally, DC does extensive outreach and enforcement of the law. District government gives out thousands of free reusable bags, many touting the results of the law. A team of inspectors visits businesses regularly and issues warnings and even citations. Montgomery County has been significantly less proactive with enforcement, preferring a complaint-based approach. They also devote a lot less resources to the outreach effort (though they had this awesome holiday video). They reinvested in the program last summer, and began more proactive enforcement, with the plan of conducting an evaluation of the program in Summer 2017, after a year of the new approach.

For that reason, it is still premature to declare the law a failure. It is demonstrably reducing litter in streams, but it could have much more public support if residents and businesses felt it was being implemented fairly and effectively.

Would an outright ban be better? Takoma Park just did it, and we advocated for a statewide ban in Maryland in 2015 and 2016. It could be, and if the Montgomery County Council prefers to try that approach, we are ready and able to help. Both models have their benefits, but the Council shouldn’t presume the fee is a failure when their only metrics are squeaky wheels and irregular revenue.

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