Last month, I wrote about California’s plastic bag ban bill (AB 1998), and Fake Plastic Fish reader Old Novice commented that she thought bag bans were a bad idea and would instead favor a bag fee or tax instead. Well, the bill passed the full Assembly as well as the Senate Environmental Quality Committee, and it has now to pass another committee and then the full Senate. I’m in favor of the bill because it’s what we have. I think we need to do something about plastic bags, and I’d rather see a bag ban pass than nothing at all. But is a ban better than a fee? Let’s talk about that.
The Problems with Plastic 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.
What’s the Solution for Plastic Bags?
California’s bag ban comes with an 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, Washington D.C. recently enacted a 5 cent bag tax, which by many assessments has been a success. 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.
Here are a few other opinions I found around the web:
Plastic Bag Fee
Jess Leber on Change.org 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? A plastic bag ban would remove consumer choice, thus eliminating plastic bag pollution entirely. The question is whether we are willing to allow some plastic bag pollution in an effort to let consumers feel they have a choice, or whether it’s more important to us to get rid of them altogether.
A few days ago, the L.A. Times endorsed California’s bag ban bill, but not without qualifying their endorsement with the opinion that they felt a significant fee would have been better:
A preferable solution would be a significant fee on all single-use bags; such fees have worked well elsewhere. But as it’s now written, the Brownley bill, AB 1998, is a good compromise that will make a real environmental difference at a minimum of inconvenience or cost. It doesn’t levy new expenses on grocers or other retailers — the bill has the support of the California Grocers Assn. — and it gives consumers a choice of either paying a few cents for a more environmentally acceptable paper bag or avoiding the cost altogether by bringing reusable totes.
Blogger Saved By the Bay favors both bans and fees (as long as the fees are steep enough) and thinks that people would get over their initial opposition to a full-on ban:
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.
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 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.
And some opponents claim that a plastic bag ban/fee would be a hardship for poor people. But Daniella Russo from the Plastic Pollution Coalition refutes that argument:
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.
Blogger Sianwu from That’s Amasian supports a ban for all disposable bags — paper and plastic. 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.
So what do you guys think is the best solution?