Plastic Bags: Ban Them, Tax Them, or Knit Fake Plastic Fish?

7 years ago

Plastic grocery bags. How many of us have a bag (or more) full, stashed in a closet or under the kitchen sink, meaning to reuse them someday? And how many of us have accumulated a wealth of reusable bags that we intend to take with us shopping but somehow always manage to forget?

plastic grocery bags

According to the Plastic Pollution Coalition:

  • Roughly 19 billion plastic bags are distributed in California annually.
  • Less than 5% are currently recycled.
  • Even when bags are properly disposed, they often blow out of trash cans, garbage trucks, and landfills and become litter.
  • Most California retailers subsidize the cost of plastic and paper bags. This cost is estimated at more than $400 million annually, and is passed on to consumers in the form of higher grocery costs.
  • In January, Washington, DC enacted a 5 cent ‘fee’ on grocery bags. That policy has been credited with reducing single-use bags by 65%.
  • Plastic bags are a key component of the plastic pollution choking our land, our oceans, and our wildlife.

So what is the solution? Right now, the state of California is debating whether or not to pass a ban on all plastic grocery bags. AB 1998 could be an important step for the state. Recently, many cities in California have been prevented by the plastic bag industry from enacting their own local bans because of the environmental impact report required before each ban can go into effect. Unfortunately, individual cities don’t have the funds necessary to pay for separate EIR’s and are relying on the state to ban the bags once and for all.

California’s bag ban comes with another interesting feature: not only does it ban plastic bags, but it also imposes a 25 cent fee on paper bags, so that the question of paper vs. plastic will be moot. The hope is that customers will start bringing their own reusable bags shopping instead of relying on any form of disposable bag.

There are those who think banning the bags is a great idea. And there are others who feel that bans only create resentment and that charging a fee is a better way to go. In fact, that five cent bag tax in DC is being considered success by many assessments. Erik Assadourian from WorldWatch Institute has written a comprehensive analysis of both options, concluding that a tax is the better way to go:

But the key point is that in a culture like America, where freedom is deemed sacred (even though governments, business, and the media regularly shape our behaviors and thoughts), preserving the perception of free choice is an important part of any successful legislation. So while a plastic bag ban might be better in some places-like China, Kenya, or, yes, San Francisco, a significant bag tax might be the best way to go in California.

Plenty of BlogHers have weighed in on the issue -- some supporting a ban, some supporting a tax and some just wondering what they'll put their garbage in.

Here are a few of the opinions from around the web.

Plastic Bag Fee

Jess Leber on cites the Assadourian piece and concludes that a bag tax, even a small one like the 5 cent tax that was enacted in Washington D.C., works on the guilt factor:

A five cent fee is a pidgin compared to a $50 grocery bill. It certainly leaves us a choice. So, how’s that going to be effective? It’s the guilt factor, of course. You feel more and more ashamed when every time you check out at the local Safeway, you are forced to think about your environmental negligence and admit it to all within earshot.

D.C. blogger Amelia from Gradually Greener says the bag tax is “totally working,” citing her own experience:

I did find myself refusing a plastic CVS bag the other day when I bought a couple of bath items (I stowed them in my purse instead). Probably I’d have taken the bag if it weren’t for the fee.

But blogger TaxGirl, whose tagline is “Because paying taxes is painful… but reading about them shouldn’t be,” finds a problem with the concept of bag fees. When cities depend on them for revenue, the success at behavior modification can be costly.

The very nature of taxing “bad behavior” is that, if you’re successful, the revenue stream will eventually dry up. And yes, it feels like that should be a good thing. But politicians aren’t really counting on the idea that the tax will accomplish the behavioral goals – they tend to count on the revenue. It’s exactly the reason that I tend to be critical of these kinds of taxes.

Plastic Bag Ban

So what about outright bans instead? While many people feel that banning bags will have the effect of creating resentment instead of willing compliance, there are still plenty of bag ban advocates.

Blogger Saved By the Bay favors both bans and fees (as long as the fees are steep enough) and writes:

Changes in behavior are hard at first, but we humans are actually highly adaptable creatures. Over 35 Bay Area cities have total or partial bans on styrofoam. Does anyone miss styrofoam anymore? As a frequent bike/pedestrian shopper, I can vouch first-hand that reusable totes are in fact much more convenient and easier to carry than a plastic or paper bag.

And Jennifer Grayson from The Red, the White, and the Green has a more self-serving reason for supoprting California’s bag ban:

I pray that it passes, if only to imagine the dumbfounded reaction of the lady I encountered yesterday in the checkout line of the supermarket. She asked for her purchase — a lone toothbrush — to be double bagged.

Voluntary Bans

Some towns have bypassed the legislature altogether. In the English town of Modbury, activist Rebecca Hosking was able to get a bag ban enacted without actually getting any law passed. An environmental filmmaker who went to the Pacific to film marine life for the BBC, Hosking was horrified by the plastic bag pollution she encountered. So she invited all 43 shopkeepers in her small village to a screening of her film and was able to convince all 43 of them to agree to stop giving out plastic bags.

Perhaps voluntary efforts like Modbury’s can work on a small scale, but for large cities like San Francisco or Washington D.C., legislative efforts are probably necessary. Of course, there are those who feel nothing needs to be done about plastic or paper bags in the first place.

No Ban or Fee

Katy Grimes insists on the Cal Watchdog site that California’s bill is effectively a tax on poor people, and the problem is not with the bags themselves but with people’s behavior:

Plastic bag manufacturers argue that the problem is not the manufacturing of plastic bags, it’s a litter problem caused by careless people. Enforcing litter laws would go much further to helping the environment according to opponents of Brownley’s bill.

Brownley calls grocery shopping bags “single-use bags,” yet most people use plastic bags multiple times before tossing them into the trash. Everything from trashcan liners, storage and carryall bags, to doggie poop pickup bags, plastic shopping bags have many uses.

Daniella from the Plastic Pollution Coalition refutes the argument that a plastic bag ban or bag fee will be a burden for low-income people:

  • 1) The cost of ”free” bags is already embedded in the price of our groceries
  • 2) Cities must tax residents to pay to clean up plastic bag litter.
  • 3) Many of the world’s poorest countries have already successfully banned plastic bags.
Ban Both

Blogger Sianwu from That’s Amasian supports a ban for all disposable bags. Listing the pros and cons of both, she concludes:

So what’s my verdict? Paper is no better than plastic, even though paper seems to be the choice of greener outfits like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. Any city or state ordinance seeking to limit the use of disposable bags should do the right thing and ban or tax both.

She also offers a list of ways to reuse both kinds. But she skipped the one I like the best: knitting. Yes, back when I first created my blog, Fake Plastic Fish, I decided that the best use for the plastic bags I had collected would be to knit a fake plastic fish. Here’s the result of my efforts. Not so beautiful. But then, neither are plastic bags.

plastic grocery bags

What do you think is the best solution?



Beth Terry
Live Life with Less Plastic!
Twitter: @fakeplasticfish
Facebook: FakePlasticFish

What do you think is the best solution?

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