DC leads (green) nation in bikes, bags

As world leaders gather in Copenhagen this week for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, I sit in my chilly home office and take the Green DC Pledge. I pledged to, among other things, bring a reusable bag to the grocery store and carry a non-disposable water bottle instead of buying bottled water. When the pledge asked me to fill in another way I’m going green, I wrote, “Put on an extra layer instead of turning on my heat.” (But I draw the line at wearing a hat indoors.)

So other than encouraging residents to take vows of green, what else is the nation’s capitol doing to help save our planet? Yesterday I talked to Alan Heymann, acting chief of staff for the District Department of the Environment.

What’s new and green in Washington?

This year, we introduced the Mayor’s Green DC Agenda. There’s a list of hundreds of action items, like putting green roofs on government buildings, planting more trees and expanding green collar job training.

Where does DC stand on the green spectrum, compared to other cities?

It depends on how you’re measuring it. I think we’re doing pretty well. We had the first bike-sharing program in North America, and we’re second behind New York in terms of people getting to work in some way other than driving. We’re first in the nation per capita in Energy Star buildings. We’re close to the top in actual square footage of green roofs, and we were the first jurisdiction in the country to adopt a Zipcar program for our own government fleet.

Tell me about DC’s new bag law.

Starting January 1, 2010, we’ll be the first city in the nation to have a fee on both paper and plastic bags. Everyone who sells food or alcohol in the District is covered—and that includes department stores that have a chocolate counter or a Best Buy that sells candy by the register. Everything they sell will be in a bag that costs five cents, unless the customer brings a reusable bag. There are some exceptions. If you go to the grocery store and buy peaches, or the hardware store to buy a key, those plastic bags are OK. Our agency is handing out more than 100,000 reusable bags—mostly to low-income residents, at senior wellness centers and at CVS locations between now and the end of December.

So where will the five-cent fees go?

The business will keep one or two cents (two if they offer a rebate to customers who bring their own bags). The rest of the fee will go to the new Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Fund. DDOE will use this money for actually cleaning up the river and educating the public about litter and handing out more reusable bags. The bag fee is estimated to generate $3.6 million in the first year. The estimates will decline over the years, but that’s an outcome we’re thrilled with. The point is to get people to use fewer bags so they don’t end up in the river.

What else will contribute to the fund?

The bag bill will be the biggest contributor. We’ll also do an income tax check-off for 2009 so residents can donate money to the fund. And in 2010, the Department of Motor Vehicles will have a commemorative Anacostia River license plate, so the proceeds from the sale of the plates will go into that fund.

Other than carrying reusable bags, what can residents do?

They can sign the pledge, which includes things like planting a tree in your front yard, bringing your own lunch to work so you don’t have all the to-go containers, and having a meatless meal once a week or more often.

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