Monday, January 12th, 2015

The Disaster that is the Dallas Bag Tax

IBag2Bag-in-store-160wmplementation of the Dallas, TX bag tax began on Jan. 1, and less than two weeks into its implementation, the statute has proven to be overly complicated at best, disastrous at worst.

Plastic bag taxes, including the one enacted in Dallas, are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the realities of litter reduction and the recyclability of plastic bags, and they are inherently regressive, placing the greatest burden on those who can least afford it, at a time when American families still struggle. By enacting a plastic bag tax, Dallas placed myth ahead of reality, ignoring the fact that plastic bags are 100 percent recyclable – and recycled. Over 90 percent of Americans have access to plastic bag recycling, and it is the fastest growing sector of the recycling industry at large. Most importantly, plastic bags comprise less than 0.5 percent of the municipal waste stream and traditionally less than one percent of litter. And while no amount of litter is acceptable, taxing plastic bags doesn’t lead to a reduction in litter or municipal waste because the environmental impact of plastic bags is so minimal to start with. Plastic bag taxes simply encourage shoppers to take their business elsewhere—in this case, beyond Dallas’ borders, as recent reports from residents suggest.

In addition to the unintended consequences that loom over bag taxes generally, the Dallas statute in particular contains several onerous requirements that already have led to widespread confusion and will continue to yield negative economic consequences. First, the ambiguity surrounding the list of entities required to comply with the legislation has left retailers uncertain about how to implement it. The ordinance was designed to encourage residents to use so-called reusable bags (of course, plastic bags are reusable; 9 out of 10 consumers report reusing them for other household purposes) but requires all retailers, not just grocers, to levy the fee. Residents rarely bring reusable bags into settings other than grocery stores.

Further, the Dallas bag tax statute includes arcane details about what constitutes a “reusable” bag under the ordinance. In one instance, a Dallas resident tried to reuse a traditional plastic bag but was told by a retailer that she had to pay the bag fee, despite the fact that she brought the bag from home and was reusing it as per the legislation’s intent. Dallas residents and consumers are likely to continue to be frustrated with this poorly written statute—especially if retailers choose to charge the tax across the board, even when the legislation doesn’t require it. Such are the unintended consequences—and costs to consumers—when retailers find it difficult to operate in this regulatory minefield.

This isn’t the only aspect of the Dallas ordinance that will dramatically increase the costs of consumers and businesses. The statute also requires merchants to purchase bags that are branded with their businesses names and test the reusability and thickness of the bags themselves. Small businesses and mom-and-pop shops who previously gave customers generic “Thank You” bags will be required to purchase their own customized bags—at great cost, which undoubtedly will cut into profits or require an increase in costs passed on to consumers.

Judging by the howls of residents and retailers who are opposed to the implementation of this bag tax, it’s safe to say that the statute has been a disaster. But the great irony of it all is that the law isn’t even constitutional, and the city of Dallas knew it. Last August, in response to a legislator’s inquiry, then Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott (now Governor) provided his considered opinion on Dallas’ tax, summarizing that, under Texas state law, “a court would likely conclude that a city ordinance prohibiting or restricting single-use plastic bags is prohibited.”

So not only has Dallas’ plastic bag tax confused retailers, angered residents, raised costs on both and failed to have any impact on litter, it also has violated Texas state law. If these were the Dallas City Council’s goals, they succeeded. That is unlikely. Instead, their misguided attempts to legislate a 100 percent recyclable product has negatively impacted the city’s economy, made business operations more onerous and saddled residents with a regressive tax.

Promoting recycling and recycling education would have been a much better plan.

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