What happens when a plastic bag tax goes into effect? Since New Year’s Day, many Washington D.C. shoppers have been quickly finding ways to do without the plastic bag, because a 5-cent bag tax went into effect.

While 5 cents isn’t exactly a lot of money, it appears to be enough to change people’s behavior — quickly. I got to see this change in person when I was visiting D.C. over the weekend. Many stores had prominent signs about the new tax posted on doors and near the register — like the one above I saw at a Subway — and customers were quick to react.

“It’s a nickel now, right?” said a guy, who walked in with two friends. “Okay, put them all in one bag.”

The quick adaptations people are making to the new rule makes obvious how wasteful previous habits were. Last month, each month of the trio would have probably each gotten his or her own bag, only to take the sandwich out just minutes later, discarding the bag to sit pretty much forever in a landfill!

According to The Washington Post, the new bag conserving behavior I saw at that Subway is not the exception, but the rule now:

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.
Of course, a new tax can’t avoid protesters — though most of the protesting against the tax seems to come in the form of avoiding taking a bag to avoid the tax, which is a win both for the environment and the business. Many people are finally starting to make using reusable bags a part of their routine simply to avoid paying the nickel — while others are just precariously juggling items out of the store sans bag.

What I find interesting is the fact that people didn’t make such drastic efforts to save 5 cents when the nickel was deemed an incentive than a punishment. For a number of years, many big supermarkets like Ralph’s and Vons have been taking 5 cents off the shopping bills of customers who bring their own bags — yet few were taking advantage of this opportunity to save. Now that the exact same amount of money is called a tax and showing up as a line item on receipts, people are going to extraordinary lengths to save that nickel ….

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