Cities Winning Against Plastic Bag Pollution

Photo: Bill Hickman/Surfrider Foundation


“Paper or plastic?”

In most parts of the U.S., people shopping at grocery stores are familiar with this phrase. But in Bethesda, Maryland, where EarthShare offices are located, the common question is slightly different:

“Do you need a bag?”

That’s because Montgomery County instituted a bag fee of 5 cents per bag in 2011 for customers who don’t bring their own. To understand why the county decided to pass this law, we need to go back a few years and cross the border into Washington, DC.

In 2008, EarthShare Mid-Atlantic member Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS) did an inventory of the trash they were finding in the DC-area river of the same name.  They discovered that plastic bags were by far the most prevalent source of litter.

Plastic bags are bad for the environment because they clog waterways, don’t biodegrade, and can kill animals when they’re mistaken for food. At the time, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that the Anacostia was one of the most trash-polluted rivers in the country.

Something had to be done.

Bags Litter the Shores of the Anacostia / Photo: Protect the Anacostia

Spurred by AWS’s report, the DC government decided to take action and began having stores charge customers 5 cents per disposable bag (paper and plastic) in 2010. Although other countries have implemented bag fees, it was the first time a city in the US had done so.

While some viewed the fee as an indiscriminate attempt to fill the city’s coffers, the revenue has actually served a very specific purpose: most of the money generated by the bag fee (4 cents) goes toward river restoration, environmental education, free reusable bag distribution for low-income residents, and storm water improvements in the city. The remaining 1 cent goes back to the store owners.

Of course, the bag law (formally called the “Anacostia River Cleanup Initiative”) wasn’t just there to raise money. It was hoped that it would also spur a behavior change and encourage people to begin taking reusable bags to the grocery store, thus helping to create a trash-free Anacostia River.

The success of the bag fee has exceeded expectations.

In the first month alone, stores were reporting a 50-80% drop in demand for disposable bags. Volunteers working to clean up the Anacostia noticed significantly less bags in the river. The revenue has allowed the city to fund several environmental projects, most notably the installment of large litter traps in the river. And in 2011, neighboring Montgomery County, MD recognized the success of the project by passing a similar law.

Many cities in the US, mostly in California, are also fighting plastic trash, but with an outright ban rather than a fee on plastic bags.

EarthShare's Campaign Assistant Alyson with her Reusable Tote
In 2012 Los Angeles became the largest city in the country to ban plastic bags. The entire state of Hawaii also decided to ban plastic bags this year. As the benefits of these decisions are felt, more cities have joined the movement.

EarthShare member Surfrider Foundation has been at the forefront of fighting plastic pollution, having seen the terrible impacts that plastic is having on marine life. From huge floating “garbage patches” in the ocean, to dead birds found filled with trash that was mistaken for food, using plastic in our daily lives has undeniable consequences. Surfrider chapters around the country build awareness of these consequences and press for meaningful action at the individual and community level. 

If you want to keep the momentum going against plastic pollution, visit Surfrider Foundation’s Rise Above Plastics resource section, and consider joining one of their local chapters. Also check out Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas initiative. Visit Oceana and "Take the Plastics Pledge" , then get connected with other groups working to address this problem.

And, of course, one of the easiest things you can do to fight plastic pollution is bring a few reusable bags on your shopping trip like our campaign assistant Alyson, pictured here. That way, the next time you’re asked “Paper or plastic,” you can reply “Neither!”




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I am all for the ban on plastic bags

Noel Huelsenbeck

Walking down the beach and having your three year old picking up cigarette butts and plastic trash instead of shells and natural items is no fun.

I really like the action items at the end of the post. That's the step that is really important. We all need to take action to help eliminate plastic from our oceans, lakes, rivers, and streams. We have some many great alternatives now. We no longer have valid excuses.

Now if Tesla could make me an affordable SUV to haul my kids and gear around, and if someone could help me convert my diesel boat to run cooking oil I could really reduce my footprint.


Great article, if there is one thing that we could all do without its PLASTIC BAGS!! It is a small sacrifice that can make a huge impact.

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