Wednesday, May 13th, 2015

Turning the Tide on Plastic Bag Bans and Taxes

Over the last 10 years environmental activists have attempted to portray plastic bag bans and taxes as good for the environment. And until recently, they have been successful in their efforts to promote bag bans and taxes, because their claims haven’t been subjected to scrutiny. That’s why the APBA exists: to provide the facts and reveal the activists’ claims to be what they really are—myths.

apba-logoEdgeThere’s a reason that activists have pursued bag bans and taxes at the state and local levels. It’s because these municipal governing bodies historically have less time and energy to spend delving into the unexpected consequences of a certain act or ordinance—operating, in the famous words of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, as “laboratories of democracy” and enacting experimental policies.

This type of legislation serves a vital purpose in American democracy, but there is a side effect. It is that bad policies often get passed without the appropriate questions being asked, and environmental activists have taken advantage of this fact. Based on the erroneous and wholly baseless assumption that all plastics are bad—and hinging on the equally false misconception that plastic bags are a major component of litter, state and local legislators have been persuaded by environmental activists to enact policies based on these misguided principles.

There are four questions every state and local legislature should ask about any proposed policy, questions that would reveal the hollow core at the heart of every argument in favor of a plastic bag ban or tax: Is this necessary? Will this be effective? Is this popular? What will be the outcome?

Is this necessary?

Plastic bags traditionally constitute about one percent of litter in most of the U.S. and, according to the EPA, represent only 0.4 percent of the municipal waste stream. No amount of litter is acceptable, but it is crucial that legislators understand that plastic bags are not a significant component of litter and that this is a behavioral rather than material issue. A smarter policy approach would be to educate consumers to change their behavior rather than to unfairly target a single recyclable material. Further, the fact that plastic bags are 100 percent recyclable makes it hard to argue that banning or taxing them is necessary. An effective end-of-life solution already exists.

Will this be effective?plastic shopping bags in use

Because plastic bags are a fraction of litter and an even smaller component of the municipal waste stream, any attempt to ban or tax them is unlikely to move the needle on litter or landfills. Why use a sledgehammer when a scalpel will do? If state and local legislators are serious about promoting thoughtful and effective environmental policy, they can organize litter cleanups and promote recycling and recycling education. Bag bans and taxes don’t work. The Environmental Impact Report (EIR) from Huntington Beach, California proves this, and that’s why the city repealed its ordinance.

Is this popular?

Ask any of the many municipalities (Homer, Alaska; Basalt, Snowmass, Durango and Fort Collins, Colorado; Darien, Connecticut and Newport, Oregon) that have reversed their ordinances following public input or outcry. Or, look at the disastrous implementation of Dallas’ bag tax and the opinions of residents frustrated by the city’s hastily-enacted and poorly-considered regulation. You also could look to the reaction to California’s statewide bag ban: in less than 90 days the APBA collected the signatures of over 800,000 of California voters who oppose the legislation. In general, plastic bag bans and taxes aren’t popular.

The Anacostia River

The Anacostia River

What is the outcome?

As the Washington Post recently reported, the government of the District of Columbia has made about $10 million in revenue from its bag tax. It is clear that the revenue generated is not going to serve the stated purpose of the ordinance. Funds have been used to pay for things like field trips and personnel expenses instead of on Anacostia River cleanup. And there are other unintended consequences of bag bans and taxes: numerous cities with ordinances have seen an uptick in reported theft from stores; trash bag purchases tend go up in municipalities with ordinances because people can’t reuse their plastic retail bags; according to the NCPA, commerce is displaced from businesses operating in areas with plastic bag bans and taxes to businesses operating just outside of the perimeter that still offer plastic bags at no cost; and, reusable bags largely go unwashed and thereby transmit infectious foodborne diseases. All of these are outcomes of bag bans and taxes, and there’s no actual reduction in litter or a change in the makeup of local landfills.

Conclusions

When plastic bag bans and taxes were first promoted by activists, few legislators asked the right questions. But now state and local governments and the media are beginning to push back, and the tide is turning against bans and taxes.  That’s what SPI and the APBA have been saying all along: that plastic bag bans and taxes are not thoughtful or effective environmental policies, and we’re glad others are seeing the light.

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