My story about the bag law in Washington D.C., is now available on the website of the City Paper. Above is Emily Rice, Environmental Protection Specialist and focus of the piece. Here’s some additional information I gathered in my reporting that I couldn’t fit into the piece. I hope it helps place the comic in context.
I talked to Emily in early November and she was very forthcoming and eager to set the record straight on what is commonly referred to as “the bag tax.”
Much of the confusion about the law seems to stem from inconsistency in businesses charging the required five-cent fee. According to Rice, many stores initially did not know whether or not the law applied to them. “A hardware store maybe has food at the check-out counters,” Rice offers as an example. Indeed, every "retail establishment” that sells food or alcohol in the District of Columbia is affected under the law, passed in 2009.
Rice admitted that although the law went into effect on January 1st, 2010, no one began enforcing it on behalf of the city until December of that year. Part of the reason, she says, was to allow time for businesses to adjust to the law. Another reason was that the city needed time to be ready. “I went to a three day EPA inspector training,” she says. “I have a master’s degree in urban planning.”
This delay in enforcement may account for some of the confusion, as well as the fact that the law itself is confusing. There are different rules for different kinds of businesses. “A retail location with seating doesn’t have to charge for paper bags,” notes Rice.
Many businesses also wrongly believed that the law had instituted a flat bag tax on every transaction that could be passed along to every customer. Rice was quick to point out that law mandates a choice and a fee for choosing a bag. “I know there’s cashier discretion, so that’s a big problem,” says Rice.
Finally, the confusion may stem from the fact that Rice is just one inspector, and that there are nearly 5,000 business affected by the law. “I’m the only person working full time on this,” she says.
Part of Rice’s job involves inspecting businesses, either because she believes they are violating the law,or as part of a random check. “I just go in and act like I’m a real person,” says Rice. “The difference is that when I’m doing the transaction, I ask for a bag, in advance.” If Rice finds the business to be operating in violation of the law, she sends a warning letter on behalf of the District Department of the Environment.
After the warning letter is sent and the business still takes no action, there’s a civil penalty. The first one is $100, then $200, and then finally $500. Only one business has been fined up to $500.
I also asked Rice about Safeway’s allegation that they have seen a rise in theft since the law took effect. “My personal view is ‘thieves are gonna be thieves, I don’t think that’s a good argument against the law,’” Rice says. She also noted that she had not seen security guards checking receipts while on her inspections.
Thanks to Emily Rice and the District Department of the Environment as well as Tim Lake, Sophia Kruszewski, Shani Hilton, Mike Madden, and the Washington City Paper.