Paper or Plastic? Neither.

A supermarket employee in Seattle bags groceries into a cloth bag. On August 18, the city will vote on a plastic bag fee modeled after Ireland’s successful PlasTax fee.

We’ve all heard of the plastic menace. Plastic bags litter streets, trees, and streams. They suffocate wildlife. They can take over 1,000 years to decompose. And we’re only consuming and throwing away more of them every year.

They also have a knack for getting into the world’s oceans. Plastic bags and cigarettes account for more than 80 percent of marine litter, according to a recent landmark study by the U.N. Environment Programme, or UNEP. They are eaten by all kinds of fish and kill an estimated 1 million seabirds a year. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an island of litter twice the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean, is largely made up of plastic. UNEP says cutting bags off at the source is much cheaper than removing them later.

Enter the bag tax. A bag tax works by charging shoppers a fee””typically between 5 and 30 cents””for every bag they get in a store. This fee drives consumers to buy reusable bags and change their habits. It also causes high-quality reusable bags to emerge and diffuse because it’s a market solution. The resulting revenue can be used to raise awareness, to pay for environmental clean up, or to subsidize reusable bags.

Paper bags, often touted as a green alternative, aren’t any better for the environment””they drive deforestation, take four times more energy to manufacture, and 10 times more energy to recycle. This means less litter but much more global warming, so an effective tax should therefore cover both kinds of bags.

Bag taxes have worked in other countries. Ireland’s famous PlasTax, passed in 2002, cut an astounding 90 percent of bag use within weeks. It has not only changed consumer habits, but also social norms””carrying a plastic bag is seen as the moral equivalent of smoking on a plane.

In China, where plastic bags are referred to as “white pollution,” the parliament outright banned them in 2008. The measure cut plastic bag usage by 66 percent in its first year, saving 40 billion bags and 1.6 million tons of petroleum despite some initial problems with compliance.

The idea has taken off worldwide. Taxes or bans have been implemented in Australia, Russia, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, and South Africa. Thin plastic bags have even been banned in some of the world’s poorest countries, including Eritrea, Rwanda, Somalia, Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda.

Detractors argue that the added fees hurt the poor. Smart bag taxes address this problem by using the revenue to buy reusable bags for low-income families. Critics also point out that people can already recycle plastic bag in many supermarkets. The problem is that consumers don’t””at least not nearly enough to solve the problem. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, only 10 percent to 15 percent of paper bags and 1 to 3 percent of plastic bags are recycled in the United States.

Cities in the United States have been leading the charge against the plastic nuisance. San Francisco became the first American city to ban the bags in 2007. Los Angeles has passed a tax as well that goes into effect next year. And just last month, Washington, D.C.’s city council approved a five-cent fee on both paper and plastic bags. It will go into effect following a public awareness campaign and distribution of reusable bags to low-income residents.

But the nationwide push against plastic bags has been turbulent. Portland, Oregon’s Mayor Sam Adams backed off his own bag tax proposal earlier this year. In May, Philadelphia’s City Council killed another promising initiative under intense industry pressure. On August 18, Seattle will vote on a bag fee modeled after Ireland’s successful PlasTax. The political battle, however, has been intense: Plastic bag industry lobbyists have poured over $750,000 into a campaign to kill the measure, and voters are divided.

At the state level, bag tax bills have been proposed in Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Texas, but none have passed yet.

There has even been some movement in Congress. Rep. James Moran (D-VA) introduced the Plastic Bag Reduction Act of 2009 in June. The bill would phase in a nationwide five-cent fee on plastic bags starting in January of 2010. Unfortunately, it does not cover paper bags and currently appears stuck in committee.

The case for a national bag tax is clear. Plastic bags are a huge and growing problem. They’re not free, either, since retailers pass on the costs to consumers. In comparison, good reusable bags pay for themselves in no time. Bag taxes have been proven effective, and many other countries have passed them. It’s time that we do, too.

This CAP post was first published here.

22 Responses to Paper or Plastic? Neither.

  1. Phil Eisner says:

    This is an excellent article, JR. The voluntary use of reusable cloth bags is gaining momentum here in NJ where I live, but I would love to see either an outright ban on plastic and paper bags or a tax. Banning is better than taxing provided cheap cloth bags are available to the poor. Somehow our education system and our media have not done an adequate job on environmental issues. Getting rid of plastic bags is a no brainer. Industries that lobby for their plastic bags must be made to feel ashamed of their anti-social, anti-environment, anti-planet behavior!

  2. Mossy says:

    Excellent post, Joe. We’re in MA, and have switched to reusable bags.

  3. What the????? says:

    So what do you put your garbage in, to take it to your cans, to the street? Do you people buy plastic or paper bags to line your kitchen garbage containers? Look, I’m trying to buy less of everything, I recycle everything possible, and I compost my organic waste. But I still have to take a bunch of crap that accumulates every day out to my garbage an in my garage. How do you transport all that out 1x or 2x/day?

  4. Baerbel says:

    The only time I get a plastic or paper bag is if I don’t have a collapsible crate with me for shopping. This doesn’t happen very often and I find such a crate a lot more convenient than having to carry multiple bags for all the groceries. I live in Germany where most big stores sell those crates but from some trips to the U.S. these don’t seem to be available there on a large scale (or I just didn’t find them where I was shopping). Once bought, those crates last pretty long and can be used for other purposes as well.

  5. John Hollenberg says:

    > Look, I’m trying to buy less of everything, I recycle everything possible, and I compost my organic waste.

    What is left? After recycling (I live in LA, and there is a recycling bin for paper, cardboard, plastic, styrofoam, cans, glass, etc.) the only thing I have left is the organic waste. If I composted it (not easy to do in a condo), there wouldn’t be anything left to throw away.

  6. Jim Eaton says:

    I’m not sure how much a 5 cent tax will cause people to change their habits, especially since most of them are not aware of it. At my local market in Davis, California, I am given a 5 cent credit for each renewable bag I present (or clean paper bag). But most of us who use reusable bags do it because it is the right thing to do, not to save a nickel.

    We use one paper bag a week to collect all the trash we cannot recycle or compost in our household.

    But I have been disturbed at all the packaging material a store like Costco generates. It’s nice to get a dozen pieces of fruit not bruised or damaged, but that shell of plastic is a huge waste. Better to buy locally grown produce at a farmer’s market or fruit stand.

    Speaking of Costco, I have sent them several emails complaining about all the waste generated by the food samples they offer. A customer gets a free sample of a product, often in a small paper cup, with a napkin and a piece of plastic fork or spoon. After a bite or two, all the rest is deposited into the nearest trash container.

  7. Lamont says:

    Seattle set an all-time temperature record high today.

    I know that theoretically it is just weather, but those of us of nordic descent who live here for the climate are not having a good time.

    The A/C in my bedroom might be able to get the temperature there down to 85 tonight before I go to bed…

    After the housing collapse is over, I need to buy a home with bedrooms that are basement-level facing northeast…

  8. Brett Jason says:

    A cloth bag is great for someone who shops every day and only brings home a few items at time. I live far out in the country and I make one shopping trip for 10 or 14 days worth of supplies. I would need dozens of cloth bags. Someone shopping for a family needs more than one cloth bag. Look, what’s wrong with going back to the way we did thing for over 100 years before they came up with plastic shopping bag? I’m talking about *paper* shopping bags. They can be made from wood waste and recycled paper. The old ones used to take years to biodegrade, but we could make them so they broke down more quickly. They won’t choke or suffocate any wildlife.

    Instead of doing something this simple and practical, instead we’re going to create yet ANOTHER tax? A tax on plastic bags will only limit their use, not eliminate it. People who will pay a big premium for a brand-name product when a generic one is just as good won’t balk at paying a extra few pennies for the “convenience” of plastic bags and we’ll still have the problem. Best to simply outlaw the stupid plastic bags and bring back the brown paper bag. It worked fine for over 100 years and we never heard of any problems caused by them.

  9. Tyro says:

    I have a half dozen reusable bags that I use for groceries most of the time though I too get plastic bags sometimes because that’s what I use to line my garbage bin and take my trash out. What is the alternative? I could buy a box of plastic bin liners but I read that these are bigger and thicker than the standard plastic bags from stores and are worse for the environment.

    What are we supposed to do?

    Further, there is a real cost associated with producing and distributing reusable bags. I saw someone crunch the numbers of reusable coffee mugs and it was startling how long it took for the numbers to come out ahead. How do reusable bags compare to the cost of producing single-use bags?

    I just want to make sure that we aren’t shooting ourselves in the foot.

  10. Col says:

    A lot of this is getting the norms re-set. When everyone starts doing it, people stop fretting over avoiding charges or ease or even the environment. They just do it because that’s what everyone else does.

    That’s what is happening in many major centres in Canada. Customized bags people are proud of are popping up more and more to the point where, in my city at least, they’re at least half of supermarket shoppers if not the majority. Most just put the bags in their trunk and so they’re impromtu trips are covered. They’re also being used for a variety of other tasks and are stronger so you don’t get those sudden, inconvenient and occasionally costly, paper or plastic bag tears where your stuff drops everywhere.

    In fact, it’s now approaching the status of recycling as a ‘basic and easy’ green thing most are happy to do.

  11. jpvelez says:

    Three issues to note: most bag taxes only propose to put fees on the paper and plastic bags given by grocery stores owners and other retailers at check-out. It won’t touch your garbage or kitty litter bags. The idea is to reduce the overconsumption of plastic and paper bags, with their huge environmental costs (littering and killing wildlife after use, pollution and global warming during production).

    Second, there seems to be some debate about whether a tax or an outright ban is more effective. I had a hard time finding specific arguments though so I left this out of the article. I probably should’ve at least underscored the difference somewhere.

    Third, there is also some debate about what level of fee is effective. Ireland’s PlasTax, the most successful bag tax so far, was pegged at around 33 cents a bag. This is a lot and creates a strong disincentive stick with “free” bags. Most proposed bag taxes in the US are on the order of 5 cents. Cue the inevitable criticism that will only inconvenience, not deter, and that it is therefore a. a waste of time (certain environmentalists) or b. a crafty way for government to raise more revenue (guess). I wasn’t able to find any research on this question so I didn’t address it either.

    Taking all this into account, the well-designed bag tax is still by far the most effective solution to the plastic bag problem – much more so than voluntary programs.

  12. Kyle says:

    I’ve been fortunate enough to live in Taiwan and New Zealand, and both countries tacked on fees for plastic bags but in different ways. In Taiwan, plastic grocery bags cost about 10 cents, though sometimes less–one could buy different sizes for different prices–and most shoppers I saw brought their own bags/containers to stores. 10 cents or less seems like an insignificant cost, but it drove people away from plastic.

    New Zealanders did not charge for grocery bags, but for one to receive trash removal services, he/she has to buy special trash bags at relatively high costs. From firsthand experience, buying special, expensive bags will make you use less plastic and generate less waste.

    Taxes will not eradicate plastic bag use, but they will make people consider other, free, ways to carry their groceries, and in the case of the garbage bags, they will reconsider the amount of waste they create. This type of awareness or education might be as, or more, important than a plastic bag ban.

  13. Jim Prall says:

    Here in Toronto, Canada, the city recently imposed a charge of 5 cents per bag for plastic bags at retailers, but it is not a tax – the money goes to the retailer. It took effect in June, and people certainly are switching to reusable bags. Big plasticized-cloth bags are on sale for $1 at the grocery stores; these hold as much as three plastic shopping bags, so the payback is pretty quick. I’ve collected over a dozen of these, as they keep getting side-tracked to hold other things like power tools I’m carting from place to place, old clothes we’re setting aside for donation, my wife’s teaching materials…

    My wife’s grade 6 class got seriously involved in the campaign in favour of the bag fee. They were appalled by the huge sea of garbage in the Pacific. Their group gave two depositions at City Council during hearings, and the mayor complimented them afterward on the effectiveness of their contributions. They set up a website and made a video on their project:

    Ban the Bag Brigde wiki

    Their video

    A newspaper profile of their campaign

    They sure made us proud!

  14. Jim Prall says:

    Oops, typo – that first link should read “Ban the Bag Brigade”

  15. Dan C says:

    “They’re not free, either, since retailers pass on the costs to consumers.”

    That shouldn’t really be true: if consumers stop needing plastic bags, then retailers will stop purchasing them from suppliers, and thus there are no additional costs to pass along.

  16. Gail says:

    People did produce garbage back in the olden days before ubiquitous plastic bags and containers, before everyone had mobile phones and the only vegetables you could buy in the winter were potatoes, onions, carrots, cabbage, or canned.

    We put the garbage (after setting aside compost) in a metal can lined with a paper bag and took it out every night, and washed out the garbage can once a week after the truck came to empty it.

    Plastic bags are not necessary for anything and should be banned.

    But then, so should balloons. I’ve never understood how people can deliberately release balloons filled with helium – for fun – and not realize it is simply littering.

    Another plastic obscenity is all those take-out food containers. The list is endless.

  17. A Siegel says:

    Great discussion.

    Couple things.

    1. Definitely should mention that Ireland fee is far higher than 5 cents. It was (when I wrote on it 18 months ago) at an equivalent of 33 US cents (don’t know figure today: It also was not just a price, but also a significant awareness campaign. Yes, major impact.

    2. My favorite (at the moment) site re plastics: Fake Plastic Fish: My efforts to carry reusable bags to the grocery store pale in comparison to the documented efforts to cut out plastic from (daily) life.

  18. A Siegel says:

    Best video (embed in story?)

  19. A Siegel says:

    Ahh .. videos not allowed: Take you canvas bags:

  20. PurpleOzone says:

    My supermarket (Hannaford) has absolutely great cloth bags for $1.50. Relatives
    take them home with them. They are sturdy enough to carry a dozen or more items. They stand up in my car so items don’t spill out. I get the groceries in the house with fewer trips. The handles don’t cut up my hand if I have something heavy in them. I only have to lift one bag in place of 3 or 4 plastic ones, much easier to handle.
    When I’m don’t unloading I fold them out neatly. I don’t have a storm of plastic bags all over my kitchen to store or trash. The only disadvantage is remembering to take them into the grocery store, but I’m getting there.
    Now if I could get the fish markets to stop wrapping my fish in 5 layers! Take about a waste of time. And when are the manufacturers going to learn that people actually don’t enjoy removing an item from several layers, including thick, nearly uncuttable plastic?

  21. Peter Wood says:

    Someone should do something about all of the open air refrigerators and freezers in supermarkets — what a waste of energy!

  22. Heidi says:

    I am a new resident to Kauai and they do not have this program here! How do I advocate it?