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Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of ten of America's presidencies and who has edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review, which has been on the web since 1995, is now published from Freeport, Maine. We get over 5 million article visits a year. See for full contents of our site

January 23, 2010


Washington Post - Virginia Johnson thinks the bag fee might be driving her crazy. Three weeks into the District's new nickel charge for shopping bags, Johnson has found herself doing things that make little sense just to save . . . little cents.

Normally no penny-pincher, she now maps her day's travels to avoid having to shop in the District; she has abandoned her beloved neighborhood grocery store, Harris Teeter on Capitol Hill, in favor of stores near her Virginia office -- even though she pays an extra 2.5 percent food tax there. And twice she has unwisely carried an armload of bagless food out of D.C. restaurants, with calamitous results.

In one case, to avoid paying an extra one-quarter of 1 percent on a $20 dinner, she said no to a plastic bag, stumbled in a hole outside a Sizzling Express lunch spot and watched a whole tray of sushi hit the deck in front of the eatery on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. The next day, jostled on a busy sidewalk, she lost her unbagged lunch in front of a Cosi at Dupont Circle.

"It's not rational, I know," said Johnson, a legislative affairs specialist at a federal agency and a self-described environmentalist who was already dedicated to recycling bags. "But this is where my zeal for conservation runs into my passion for small government. The bag tax makes me batty; I'll do a lot to avoid paying it.". . .

Managers at stores that sell food or beverages say the switchover has cut the use of plastic bags by half or more. One Safeway in Northwest reports a falloff of more than 6,000 bags a week, about half of its former volume. . .

A lunchtime army of office workers now ply the sidewalks with near-naked sandwiches and sodas filling their hands, making some diners more self-conscious about what they buy. Parking lots feature impromptu juggling acts as determined fee-avoiders teeter to their cars with heaping armloads of loose groceries. And people are stockpiling reusable shopping bags -- and routinely forgetting to take them shopping.

"I've got a bunch of them, but I never remember to bring them," said Nancy Way as she pushed a cart filled with a jumble of pork chops, chips, bottles of tea and 19 other loose items across the parking lot of the Giant on Alabama Avenue in Southeast. "Now it looks like I'm stealing all this."

At the Safeway on Davenport Street NW in Tenleytown, workers had to remove the recycling bins in front of the store after too many shoppers were found pilfering soiled bags to use for their new purchases. . .

That such wholesale change in retail behavior could come from a five-cent fee is no surprise to Dan Ariely, an economics professor at Duke University and author of "Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions."

Because plastic bags have always been free, Ariely said, shoppers have come to see them as a kind of entitlement. Adding even a tiny fee is an affront to what they cherish as the natural order of things. "When it goes from zero to even a very small charge, it can feel very bad," he said. "It creates a very small financial burden but a very big emotional reaction."

Outrage over tax increases usually fades over time because the increase is buried within an item's cost, but Ariely predicts that the bag fee will continue to change behavior as consumers get a stark reminder every time a clerk asks how many bags they want to buy.

"This is like a behavioral economist's dream," Ariely said of the D.C. law. "Here we will see people go to extreme lengths to save very little money."

So far, most customers are finding simple alternatives to paying the nickel, retailers said. More and more are bringing the reusable bags that many grocery stores have been giving away in recent weeks. (Schepers says he offers a free Safeway bag to anyone who comes in with one bearing a competitor's logo: "I just prefer not to see Giant bags in my store," he said.) Others are tucking small purchases into pockets or briefcases.

But plenty are going to more elaborate lengths.

Allen Purvis proudly boasts that he has not a paid a nickel since the fee was imposed, even though that recently required him to carry six loose bottles of Kendall Jackson chardonnay out of a liquor store on P Street in Georgetown. With $71 of wine at risk and the store owner looking on in horror, Purvis tucked the bottles in and under his arms and made it to his car.

"And then I went, 'Crap; it's locked,' " Purvis said. "I was definitely more fixated on not paying for the bag than on getting them to the car.". . .

David Greene, a government contractor in Southwest, said his daily walk from the deli near his office has become a little more intimidating now that the homeless men he passes can get a clear look at his turkey wrap, Coke and Cheetos. "It's a little awkward," Greene said. "These people are sitting on the cold cement, they're hungry and they're looking at my sandwich."


Anonymous Ben said...

The Onion is so funny...oh wait, this is from the Washington Post?

January 23, 2010 8:55 PM  

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