Go Ahead, Tax My Bag

IMG_0750By Lisa Foster

If you bring your own bags to the grocery store, you’re in a growing majority. A recent, internal study showed that 54 percent of American consumers (females between 18-54) bring their own bags. That’s the good news, but here’s the rub: those who bring their own bags subsidize the cost of “free” bags for those who do not, essentially punishing behavior that benefits us all.

It’s not hard to remedy that, and it’s been done with success in Washington DC, San Francisco, Ireland and a growing number of locales. A mere five cent fee on every carry out bag is just enough to make people think and encourage significant plastic bag reduction.

Unlike bag bans, which are complex and riddled with loopholes designed by lobbyists, a bag fee is simple and applies proportionately and fairly to everyone involved: industry, retail, and consumers. No loopholes. No favoritism.

It’s a pay-as-you-throw system. Anyone who wants to pay for carry-out bags can use them. Anyone who doesn’t, does not have to. Consumers only pay for what they take. Retailers and industry get a level playing field with identical treatment from the state.

California will be considering SB 700 in a few weeks, which calls for a 5 cent fee on any carry out bag transferred from a retailer to a consumer. One cent would go to the retailer for administering the program, and an additional cent would be earned by retailers who have a five cent credit program for bringing a bag. The remaining funds would be transferred to a special state fund to benefit our local and state parks. If passed, it would be the first state-wide bag regulation implemented in any state.

I like freebies as much as anyone else, but let’s be honest: there is no free bag. Plastic bags cost retailers an estimated $4 billion a year. Within the price of every light bulb, can of tuna, and every supermarket item, there is embedded a fraction of the retailers’ cost for these so-called “free” bags.

Consumers pay an estimated $15 to $37 per year in higher grocery prices for bags alone. Part of our tax money, too, is spent to cover the millions of dollars municipalities pay for bag clean up, landfill, and disposal.

People who bring their own bags should not be paying for the overhead to cover the cost of bags for other people.

Besides, a price on bags would naturally curb excess. The current illusion of a “free” bag encourages careless over-consumption, and has resulted in making the plastic bag the most ubiquitous consumer object in the world.

chartA five cent fee for every carry out bag would not recoup the full cost of bags, but it’s enough to make people think. In Washington DC where a five cent tax was implemented last year, 80 percent of consumers report reducing single use bag usage and the median number of bags per household per week has fallen from 10 to four.

A bag fee makes the impact of taking a bag immediately transparent at the point of purchase, where the decision is made. Or at least, that is where the decision ought to be made.

Free bags take away consumer choice by hiding the decision in the board room. Bag bans, alternately, take away consumer choice by removing it to the legislature, where lobbyists with vested interests and deep pockets can riddle regulations with holes large enough for their current technologies to slip through.

Every consumer should have the right to decide what bag to take and when, but they should not be sheltered from the consequences of that decision.

Because bag fees quantify those consequences, they are inherently fairer than bag bans, and easier to enforce as well. Fees apply proportionately across groups: large and small retailers, thicker and thinner bags, frequent and occasional bag users.

A particular point of fairness for SB 700 is the imposition of a small fee on every carry-out bag at the point of sale, single use and reusable alike. No exemptions, no preferences. Every bag, even reusable ones, must be discarded sometime and there are costs to disposal. A policy without exemptions allows bags to compete transparently and fairly, as other products do, for consumer preference.

I run a small business selling reusable bags in California, and I wholeheartedly support a fee on all carry out bags, reusable and disposable alike, my bags included. This legislation has triple bottom line impacts that are in line with triple bottom line goals. It would encourage a more vibrant market for innovative bags that would add true, lasting value for consumers with less waste, thereby stimulating the economy while reducing waste, all the while treating every stakeholder fairly from retailer to consumer.

Let’s stop closing our eyes to our own waste and hiding market distortion. Instead let’s free the market for bags and make the cost of bags part of the purchasing decision.

Lisa Foster is the founder of 1 Bag at a Time and SnapSac. She has been an advocate for plastic bag reduction since 2005. She was the keynote speaker for the Federal Women’s Training Program in 2009 speaking on the environment, and has published op-eds on the subject in the Sacramento Bee. She is currently serving on the board of Northeastern University and has a Ph. D from USC.

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