Bag Tax

There’s a supermarket on my block and I’m a terrible planner, so I go to the supermarket a lot. Consequently, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to gather anecdata on the impact of DC’s new initiative to impose a five cent tax on plastic grocery bags. My key observations are that I hear a ton of whining about how terrible this new tax is, and also a lot of people engaging in tax-avoiding behavior — canvass bags, cramming stuff into backpacks, carrying items by hand. In other words, it looks to be a stunning success! The five cent fee is actually very small but people really hate paying it. Apparently it’s led to something like a fifty percent reduction in bag usage.

Like Lydia DePillis I think the implications for broader environmental policy are pretty interesting. Evidently the difference between “zero” and “a very small amount” has a lot of psychological impact on people, so even a relatively modest carbon charge might have a big impact.

At the same time, I think you also see here how difficult it is to make a difference through moderate actions. Now that stores all must charge five cents for bags, everything is going fine. But you can tell from the volume of whining about it that were any one store in some other town to start charging for bags unilaterally, it would probably find itself burned down by angry customers. People are just very wedded to their habits — they cling to their free plastic bags even harder than guns and religion.