Seattle residents will vote on a 20 cent plastic bag tax on August 18. The tax would affect grocery, drug, and convenience stores. Small businesses, those with revenue under $1 million, would keep the entire 20 cent fee. Bigger businesses would keep five cents, with 15 cents going to Seattle Public Utilities to pay for implementing and overseeing the program, plus provide free reusable bags to low income families, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters.
Last summer the Seattle City Council voted for the 20 cent tax, but the Coalition to Stop Seattle Bag Tax collected enough signatures to put the measure on the August 2009 ballot. The Coalition received the majority of its funding ($1.4 million) from the Progressive Bag Affiliates (PBA) of the American Chemistry Council (ACC). ACC members include Dow Chemical, ExxonMobil, and plastic-bag manufacturers.
A plastic bag tax is a Pigouvian tax, named after the economist A.C. Pigou. The website, EconomicExpert.com defines it as “a tax on external activities (externalities)…actions not taken into account by the acting party.” The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines it as “a tax levied on an agent causing an environmental externality (environmental damage) as an incentive to avert or mitigate such damage.
The real cost of free plastic bags
Manufacturing plastic bags requires petroleum and natural gas. Once the bags end up in landfills they take 1,000 years to break down. An estimated eight billion pounds of plastic bags, wraps, and sacks enter the waste stream every year in the U.S. Only 0.6 percent of all plastic bags are recycled, according to World Watch Institute.
According to a 2001 Japanese study plastic debris is like a sponge for toxic chemicals which contaminates oceans. Plastic is the most common ocean litter, according to a recent UNEP study. The report stated, “Plastic – especially plastic bags and PETbottles – is the most prevalent component of marine debris, poses hazards because it persists so long in the ocean, degrading into tinier and tinier bits that can be consumed by the smallest marine life at the base of the food web.”
Ireland’s PlasTax, IKEA’s phase out of plastic bags
In 2002, Ireland instituted a 20 cent tax on plastic shopping bags. Last year the tax increased to 33 cents. During the first three months, the amount of plastic bags used by Irish consumers decreased 90 percent and raised $3.45 million. After one year it decreased by 94 percent and raised $9.6 million.
Retailers now promote the tax. Founder of the Superquinn grocery store chain in Ireland, Senator Feargal Quinn said, “I spent many months arguing against this tax with the minister; I thought customers wouldn’t accept it. But I have become a big, big enthusiast.”
IKEA began phasing out plastic bags in its U.S. stores by charging five cents per bag, which decreased customer usage by 92 percent. The goal was to reduce usage by 50 percent. IKEA completely phased out plastic bags in its U.S. stores in October 2008.