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“It’s amazing the power a nickel has …”

January 9th, 2011 · 3 Comments

“It’s amazing the power a nickle has …” That is, as long as you are applying those 5 cents in the right way.

Late today, I was among a horde (and that is an accurate term) of people doing their pre-work week shopping at the local Giant Food grocery store.  In the middle of my check out, a manager came in to take over so the woman working the register could take a break.  I joked a bit with him about his having to look up food codes and otherwise chatted. As he finished up, I noticed something. Along with easily 90 percent of my visits to that store, the manager hadn’t given me the 5 cents credit for each of the reuseable bags that I’d brought with me.  And, the bagger had started putting some things into plastic bags even through there was plenty of space left in my reuseable bags.  While I asked for these things to be put into my bags, I let out some built up tension to let the manager that he had failed to give me that credit. And, that this oversight occurred all too often from his staff as well.  To be honest, the ‘battle’ each time for 5, 10, or 15 cents just isn’t worth it and therefore Giant keeps perhaps $5-10 year that should, instead, be resting in my household budget.  And, I have to think that my experience is shared by other Giant reuseable bag clients not receiving their 5 cent credits.  While I am heartened that more and more people are bringing their own bags, I doubt that this is 1 in 10 shoppers … and I doubt that a diligent effort to assure the 5 cents per bag credit would radically change this number.

Yet, that nickel — those five cents — can go a far way, even farther than we might expect.

The District of Columbia has just finished its first year with 5 cent per plastic or paper bag fee (not credit) as a path to reduce pollution in the Anacostia River and provide a revenue stream for cleanup activities. 

Five days a week, two skimmer boats known as TrashCats move along the Anacostia River, their front pincer-like gates opening wide to swallow small islands of floating garbage. The TrashCats collect approximately 400 tons of debris from the river each year, of which plastic bags, along with Styrofoam, food wrappers, bottles and cans, make up a significant portion.

 Washington’s political leaders reported, rather happily, that the revenue stream from this fee was significantly lower than expected. Originally projected to bring in about $3.5 million (representing some 70 million bags), DC now expects the actual revenue to total about $2.7 million (or fees on 55 million bags).  Notably, this is a reduction from the roughly 270 million bags used in 2009 … e.g., DC is in the range of an 80 percent reduction in the demand for plastic bags.

In a town where we talk about trillions of dollars all the time it’s amazing the power a nickel has,” said Christophe A.G. Tulou, the director of the District Department of the Environment, which is charged with spending the bag money to benefit the Anacostia River.

The power of that 5-cent fee hit pretty fast.  In January 2010, the revenue stream was a bit more than $150,000 for some 3.3 million bags. The previous month: 22 million bags. 

Giant Food’s elusive nickel has little impact.  And, well, should we talk about how many times shoppers ask for their toothpaste purchase to be double-bagged?

DC’s five-cent fee has a serious impact, an 80 percent reduction in the customer demand for bags at the store.  And, well, have to believe that there aren’t too many people looking to have an aspirin purchase double-bagged.

It is quite clear: a fee works far better than a credit in motivating people to bring canvas bags to the supermarket.


Truthfully, that 5 cent fee isn’t fully adequate.  In 2002, Ireland put a 15 Euro cent fee on plastic bags

Within weeks, plastic bag use dropped 94 percent. Within a year, nearly everyone had bought reusable cloth bags, keeping them in offices and in the backs of cars. Plastic bags were not outlawed, but carrying them became socially unacceptable — on a par with wearing a fur coat or not cleaning up after one’s dog. 

While no longer an oddity at the local Giant, people carrying reusable bags are definitely a minority.  In Washington, DC, a nickel has made the reusable bag the vastly preferred option. In Ireland, three nickels made them ubiquitous and virtually made the single-use bag extinct.

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Tags: Energy · environmental

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Tweets that mention “It’s amazing the power a nickel has …” -- // Jan 9, 2011 at 11:51 pm

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  • 2 Brian // Jan 24, 2011 at 7:54 am

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  • 3 Steve King revels in wasting taxpayers’ money // Feb 13, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    […] pay more. ” Hmmm … “pay more”?  How much more, Representative King?  The District of Columbia 5 cent charge?  Wow, what a stark dilemma that you faced in this decision-making.  Pay 5 cents to help clean up […]