The Bag Bill: One Year Later

Just over a year ago, D.C. became the first city in the country to successfully impose a “bag fee” – after several attempts in other cities (including liberal bastions like New York and Portland) failed in the face of lobbyist pressure. An insightful article in OnEarth magazine details the impressive campaign that went behind the bag bill victory, and Bread for the City is proud to have played a small role in the effort.

Our clients really do feel the pinch of an extra 5 cents at a register, so the burden of this legislation falls most heavily on them. But environmentalism isn’t just a pursuit of the privileged; our clients care about keeping their community clean as well. And together we are proving that conservation and fiscal prudence can go hand in hand.

In the year since the passage of the bag bill, Bread for the City has received tens of thousands of donated reusable bags to distribute through our pantry after the passage of the bill. The donations came by way of the DC government and several area grocery stores, including Safeway and Whole Foods, as well as private donations and community bag drives. And we are still collecting them! (Please contact Jeffrey Wankel at: to organize a reusable bag drive in your community.)

In the meantime, it seems that the bag bill itself has been a success. Prior to the legislation, District grocery stores sent 22.5 million plastic bags out their doors every month. Now the number is closer to 3 million and expected to continue to decrease. Studies of the Anacostia and its tributary systems suggest that there are now 66% fewer plastic bags clogging up the river. (And plastic bags make up 20-45% of the total litter.)

Numbers like that sure do seem to indicate some big kind of shift in behavior and even consciousness. We think we can even sense a heightened awareness of conservation at work here at Bread for the City. I spent a few hours in the SE food pantry last week, talking with clients about the problems of non-biodegradable materials (it takes about 500 years for a plastic bag to decompose!). One woman told me that she’s noticed a clear change, and is proud to live “in a community that doesn’t have plastic trash flying at you in the wind.” Someone even asked us when the government is going to put a fee on bottles and cans.

Meanwhile, clients – especially our elders – definitely appreciate the reusable bag alternatives. We incentivize bag reuse by offering an additional item of produce from our pantry for each returned reusable bag, but one grandmother always comes back for new ones anyways. “My grandkids keep taking mine,” she told us.

In our view this speaks volumes to the way that public policy can foster an understanding between individual consumer actions and the greater well-being of our city. We encourage our neighbors in Maryland to follow suit with the similar legislation that has been put forth there. If some of the city’s most vulnerable people are not only “getting it” but eager to participate and even see the initiative expand, DC must be onto something!

In 2011, we hope to continue to provide reusable bags to our clients. Once again, to schedule an individual donation or plan a community bag drive, please contact Jeffrey Wankel at:

Holiday Cheer is in the Bag!

In the coming months, our beloved Holiday Helpings program will provide more than 8,000 clients with complete holiday meals — a turkey and all the trimmings.

That’s a whole lot of turkeys!

In the past, Holiday Helpings has consumed tens of thousands of single-use bags to package them all. (Since each package is heavy, we need to provide one paper bag and two plastic bags each.) So this time around, we intend to be better to our environment, by distributing as many reusable cloth bags as possible.

We’ve been running a reusable bag drive for much of this year — ever since the passage of the Bag Tax (which levied a fee of 5 cents per bag). Thanks to our food pantry and dozens of generous donors, thousands of our clients have already received reusable bags for our their grocery shopping and other needs. That helps their wallets, since those nickels can really add up against a limited income.

With our food pantry about to kick into high gear, reusable bag drives are a great way to help Bread for the City this holiday season.

Many of us have extra totes at home, work, or in the car. Please consider donating these idle bags to our clients. You can even pick up a few extras at the grocery store for us.

Even better, set up a Holiday Helpings drive in your community or workplace, and help us bring in many more bags, food, and cash for our holiday season. Bag drives are easy; and the average drive brings in nearly 100 bags! Please contact Nathan LaBorie or 202.386.7611 if you would like to set up a drive.

And in the meantime, of course, please give directly to Holiday Helpings — just $29 will provide our special holiday package to a family of four.


>More Bags Please!

> Since the advent of the 5 cent D.C. bag tax, Bread for the City has become a distribution center for reusable totes. Nickels add up for our struggling clients. They need reusable bags.

As monthly food client Bernard Smith explained to me, “I don’t want to pay a nickel for a plastic bag that will just break and pollute the city.” Another client added, “I can’t afford these [reusable] bags without Bread for the City, and getting a bag from you helped me remember to bring them to the store.”

What’s more, reusable bags save us money. By replacing plastic and paper bags in our pantry, we immediately save 18 cents per reusable bag donated. A seemingly small impact; until you consider that we have collected 16,000 reusable bags, saving us a total $2,800. But Bread for the City’s food pantry serves thousands every month; we still need more bags!

Our reusable bag collection started with likely donors such as Whole Foods, D.D.O.E, and Safeway. Recently I started casting a wider net in our never ending quest for bags — and recently got a big boost from the Walter E Washington Convention Center. I had a hunch they might have a few leftover reusable bags from trade shows and conventions, so I contacted Theresa DuBois, the External Affairs Manager. Turns out they had 1,500.

Theresa was kind enough to expedite the donation, and we had the bags one short week after I contacted her. Notably, the Convention Center does not report donations, and they rarely receive recognition for their actions. Theresa, in short, was happy to help just for the sake of helping Bread for the City. She explained, “I am very familiar with Bread for the City’s exceptional work. We are excited to work with you on your tote bag campaign!”

We plan to continue working with The Convention Center as more bags become available.

You can help too by organizing a reusable bag drive at work, home, or in your neighborhood. A wide variety of organizations have signed up for bag drives; such as WilmerHale, Eco-Bags , and Sasha Bruce Youthwork.

Bag collections are a simple way to help Bread for the City, our clients, and the environment. Sign up today! Contact Jeffrey Wankel at for details.


>More and more bags!

>In the wake of the Bag Tax, Bread for the City has become a distribution center for reusable bags. Our clients, who on average earn just $7,000/year, can’t afford to pay for bags — but we can help them mitigate the effects on their wallets.

Our goal is to give every client a reusable tote. We can’t do it alone. Recently, we blogged about the generous contributions from large donors like Whole Foods, D.D.O.E., Target and Giant. And now that Safeway has generously fulfilled its pledge (and then some!) with a donation of 7,000 bags, Bread for the City has reached a total of 15,000 reusable bags.

While this is impressive, our food pantry serves enough people to pass out these bags in a few short months! We want to make sure every client gets one. There is still a lot of work to do, and now you can help!

Please consider organizing a reusable bag drive at work, school, church, or around the neighborhood. Many of us have extra bags lying around (a few shopping bags too many, canvas totes with random logos, free bags from work functions, etc). Contact Jeffrey Wankel at to receive simple instructions for setting up your drive today!

Our goal is to collect 3,000 additional bags through drives. I’ll continue to update you on our progress as the campaign moves forward.


>Rounding up reusable bags

>Although we support the environmental objectives of DC’s new bag tax, we also can’t ignore the cumulative effect of a 5c per-bag fee on our clients. Clients are already turning to us because they fell short each month — so even seemingly small extra fees do have an impact on them.

This also means that Bread for the City can be a critical gateway point for efforts to mitigate the regressive effect of this law. So we are pleased to report that since the passage of the Bag Bill, Bread for the City has received more than 8,000 reusable bags to distribute to our clients.

We are keeping track of every bag we hand out, and encouraging clients to bring back their bag next time. Early indications suggest that our clients are adapting quickly. Clients are already coming back with our reusable bags in hand, as well as others that they’ve received elsewhere.

So a special thanks goes out to these large donors: D.D.O.E.(5,500 bags), Whole Foods (2,000 bags), Giant (200 bags), and Target (100 bags).

As impressive as 8,000 bags sounds, it leaves us far from our goal of one reusable bag provided to each client. Even before the passage of the law, however, Safeway pledged to donate a large amount of reusable bags. By fulfilling its pledge, Safeway would put us considerably farther along down the path to a bag per client.

While we wait for Safeway to come through, we’re continuing to search for more bags for our clients. That’s why we are kicking off a reusable bag campaign: now you can help!

Put those dozens of idle bags lying around your house to good use. Set up a bag drive at work, or your community group. Contact me at to make arrangements.

Thanks to all of our generous supporters!