Ban Paper or Plastic?

I know there are plenty of you out there that think almost all taxes are evil. I disagree. Some taxes have the ability to alter poor behavior while simultaneously raise money. Pending on how it works, these types are the good ones.

There was a law set up last month in D.C. (passed unanimously by city council) to place a five-cent tax on paper and plastic bags at grocery stores, pharmacies and other food-service providers. So, basically, if I went shopping, my total came to $35.20, and I needed one bag to put it in, my total would then become $35.25. Similarly, if I needed two bags, my total would become $35.30, and so on — while if I simply bought reusable bags, I would be subject to no tax.

From what I hear from people in D.C., they absolutely hate it. Even though it’s just an extra five cents, they want absolutely nothing to do with it. They really want that nickel. So many people use less bags, bring their own, or just try to balance everything without one on their trip home. Think about how much less waste and pollution there is in D.C. now, because of a measly five-cent fee.

As D.C. Council member Jack Evans said before the tax was implemented:

“There is not a river I go to, a park I go, a stream I go to, where I don’t see plastic bags everywhere,” Evans (D-Ward 2) said. “The fact is our country is becoming inundated with plastic bags and plastic bottles. . . . This is the first step to try to address this issue.”

It’s certainly similar in the Lehigh Valley. I see plastic bags on the ground many places I go.

The reason why I bring this up is that there are currently two bills (Senate Bill 609 and House Bill 2200) in our own state legislature to ban plastic and paper bags statewide. However, according to PA Independent, there is no traction associated with either piece of legislation — perhaps because it is taking the furthest-reaching approach to try and ban all paper and plastic bags at grocery stores.

If it’s not gaining traction, what about the five-cent tax as a compromise? Seems to be working pretty well in D.C.


  1. The interesting thing about this, to me, is that several grocers already give you a 5 cent discount, per bag, on your groceries when you use a reusable bag. However, I have always thought that this would be more effective if they went the other way and charged you 5 cents for using their plastic bags. The incentive doesn't seem to work as well as the disincentive, in this case.

  2. Wow, you guys are really hurting for articles today, say.

    And after all that happened with Obama's big Obamacare summit yesterday…

    Nationalize grocery stores.

    That will solve everything.

    Then Obama can appoint a Plastic Bag Czar to tell everybody what to do and how much it will cost them.

    (hopefully one who is up-to-date, unlike some of Obama's other appointments – like Treasury Secretary Geithner – with their taxes)

    (and not a former lobbyist – unlike others in the Obama Administration – despite Obama's own promise in the campaign to the contrary)

    Gotta love Progressive Liberalism, don't you?

  3. Admit it.

    Progressive Liberal Democrats never saw a tax they did not like.

    Or a rule they could not wait to mandate and enforce.

    Remember, the country is roughly 234 years old.

  4. I thought taxes were levied so governmment could provide services not so it could alter behavior. When the government charges people money for doing things it doesn't want them to do it isn't a tax it is a fine.

  5. Ryan O'Donnell says:

    Anon 12:05,

    But it's not like the government wouldn't be providing services with the revenue generated from a five-cent bag tax.

    A good tax would generate revenue to provide services while discouraging poor behavior.

  6. You are correct that the government would be providing services with the money raised. Just like the government uses the the money from speeding, parking and other types of fines. Calling it a tax is disingenuous. If it is being used to alter behavior or punish behavior it is a fine.

  7. One thing that is never considered by government apologists and their ham fisted ideas for controlling your behavior..the law of unintended consequences. fro example, what about the people employed in the plastic bag market? what about the increased demand for paper, and therefore timber, when we're forced to switch? These are only the obvious one that come to mind. If you want a classic case of unintended consequences from government action, look at rent control in NYC – the outcome is exactly opposite of the intended – only the wealthiest can live there and there is a thriving black market.
    good luck wiht your 5 cent fine……

  8. Jon Geeting says:

    Capri, you're right. One of the major findings of behavioral economics is that loss aversion is way more powerful a motivator than getting something.

    Fact is, while plastic bags are "free" there's no such thing as a free lunch. The cost of all those bags is built into the price of the products sold at the store. If I bring my own bags, why should I have to subsidize someone else's bags. If people really want them, they should have to buy them.

    Plus, plastic is really toxic, lasts thousands of years, and as such is terrible for the environment. As long as bags are "free" there's no incentive for anyone to cut down on using them. This is a classic economics problem of unpriced externalities. There is a cost (health, gross litter) borne by people who are not parties in the transaction.

    No one wants a situation where the government bans bags outright. That probably wouldn't even work. A 5 cent tax is a much better way to go about it. Everyone is free to use plastic bags as they wish. A 10-bag grocery order would cost you $0.50 more. You probably lose more change in the couch cushions every week.

  9. Anonymous 11:37, I've got a nice plastic bag for you. You can put it over your head and then tie it real tight.

  10. Donald Dal Maso says:

    As a New Yorker for the past 30 years who is not a billionaire I wonder where Anonymous gets his information about rent-stabilization? Rent Control and Rent Stabilization have made it possible for Middle Class New Yorkers to live in all parts of the five boroughs with security that their apartment rents will be within their means. Those rents can be in comparison to other cities relatively high (i.e. an average $1800 or thereabouts for a one-bedroom) but still within a reasonable percentage of the household income (up to 35% of the gross). Landlords make a reasonable profit and speculation in this market is unknown.

    I'm always willing to hear what somebody from the Right has to say if it is an original insight or based on facts but 90% of what I see and hear is nothing more than cliches and recycled BS. It would save everybody's time if they would number their points at one master site and then cut and paste from there. It would save a lot of time.

    An exception would be somebody like George Will who has through his entire career acted like a responsible journalist.

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