Shopper Survey Results: The impact of a small bag fee on reusable bag use!

Press Release

Contacts:  Martha Ainsworth ( 301-262-8389, Anne Ambler ( 301-946-5599.


 College Park, February 23, 2014.   A survey of shoppers at five major grocery chains in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties shows the potentially large impact of a small bag fee on shopper behavior, and ultimately on plastic bag trash, in the state’s waterways.  The survey, conducted by more thn 45 Sierra Club volunteers, recorded the behavior of nearly 17,000 shoppers as they exited stores from five grocery chains in early 2014. Shoppers with bagged groceries in Montgomery County, which adopted a 5-cent fee on disposable carryout bags in 2012, were seven times more likely to use a reusable shopping bag (57%) than were shoppers in Prince George’s County (8%), which does not have a fee.

            Montgomery shoppers were also four times more likely to carry out their merchandise with no bag at all, compared with shoppers in Prince George’s County.  Taking into account both those who used reusable bags and those who used no bag at all, nearly two-thirds of Montgomery shoppers are not using disposable bags (64.5%), compared with only 12% of Prince George’s shoppers.   

            Disposable plastic shopping bags are harmful to wildlife and the environment.  In 2008 they accounted for nearly half of all of the trash on the streams leading to the Anacostia River.  Although the bags are offered for “free” at the checkout, they are costly to retailers. Estimates are that shoppers pay from $15 to $38 annually for disposable bags in the form of higher grocery bills.  The objective of a disposable bag fee is not to raise revenue, but to change shopper behavior, resulting in fewer bags and less trash. The less revenue raised, the more successful is the policy.  In both Montgomery County and the District of Columbia, the revenue from bag fees is earmarked for environmental uses.

            The shopper survey, organized by the Prince George’s Sierra Club and the Neighbors of the Northwest Branch, systematically observed the bag use of nearly 17,000 shoppers in 56 grocery stores in Montgomery and 46 in Prince George’s counties.  The survey was conducted on weekends in January and February, 2014 and covered all stores from five grocery chains in the two counties:  Giant, Safeway, Shoppers Food Warehouse, Food Lion, and Wegman’s.   The enumerators recorded the number of shoppers who exited with all reusable bags, all disposable bags, a mix of the two, or all unbagged merchandise, for an hour at each store.

            The shopper survey was able to document the types of bags used, but not the number.   John Straub, one of the 45 volunteers who participated in collecting the data, observed that “shoppers in Montgomery County who continued to use disposable bags seemed to have fewer of them --  there were more unbagged items in their carts than those in Prince George’s.”

            “We have no baseline measure of shopper behavior in Montgomery County before the fee went into effect,” explained Martha Ainsworth, Chair of the Prince George’s Sierra Club Group and one of the organizers of the survey.  “However, a comparison of shopper behavior in the same grocery chains in Prince George’s County, with no bag fee, suggests that the impact of a small fee on shopper behavior is potentially great in other counties in Maryland.”  Montgomery County residents have higher incomes than Prince George’s residents, on average, but the large differential in reusable bag use holds in communities at all income levels.  For example, in stores in communities with median household income of $80,000-$99,999, the survey found that 62% of Montgomery shoppers used reusable shopping bags, compared to 5% of Prince George’s shoppers.

            Groups involved in stream clean-ups in Montgomery County have noticed an impact on plastic bag trash.  “The number of plastic bags collected by the Friends of Sligo Creek cleanup dropped from 2,168 to 223 from 2011to 2013, before and after the Montgomery fee, and the share of plastic bags in the total dropped from 22% to 13%,” reported Anne Ambler, President of the Neighbors of the Northwest Branch and organizer of the Montgomery survey. “Plastic bags are now practically absent from the litter pulled from the Northwest Branch of the Anacostia River in Montgomery County, except at the border with Prince George’s County.” 

            Shoppers in Prince George’s County at the same chains were surveyed in 2012 and there has been little change in reusable bag use since then – from 7% to 8%.  There have been attempts to reduce plastic bag litter in Prince George’s County, from distributing free reusable bags to offering a 5-cent credit for bringing a reusable bag at major chains, like Giant.  “These efforts have made some inroads, but not enough for major behavior change in favor of reusable bags,” according to Janis Oppelt of College Park, one of the survey volunteers.    

            There are currently two bills before the legislature that would enable Prince George’s and other counties to adopt a five-cent fee on disposable plastic and paper bags.  “These results provide evidence of the power of a small fee to change shopper behavior, even in relatively wealthy communities,” Ainsworth noted.  “The two-thirds of shoppers in Montgomery County who are choosing not to use a disposable bag are avoiding the fee, while those who want them are paying for them.”

*Among all shoppers who used bags.  “Reusable” includes those with exclusively reusable bags and a mix.  Within Prince George’s County, 6.1% of shoppers had exclusively reusable bags and 2.2% a mix of reusable and disposable.  For Montgomery County the figures are 51.0% and 5.9%, respectively.