It’s really a question as to whether shops are profiteering at the expense of the environment.
Why am I only charged for a plastic bag at the grocery store and not at the clothing store or any other store.
Why are a plastic bags at seemingly every checkout counter across America? Because people love them.
“People look at [paper] and say it’s degradable, therefore it’s much better for the environment, but it’s not in terms of climate change impact,” says David Tyler, a professor of chemistry at the University of Oregon who has examined the research on the environmental impact of bag use.
The reasons for paper’s higher carbon footprint are complex, but can mostly be understood as stemming from the fact that paper bags are much thicker than plastic bags.
“Very broadly, carbon footprints are proportional to mass of an object,” says Tyler.
For example, because paper bags take up so much more space, more trucks are needed to ship paper bags to a store than to ship plastic bags.
Looking beyond climate change
Still, many environmentalists argue that plastic is worse than paper. Climate change, they say, isn’t the only form of environmental degradation to worry about.
“Paper does have its own environmental consequences in terms of how much energy it takes to generate,” acknowledges Emily Norton, director of the Massachusetts Sierra Club.
“The big difference is that paper does biodegrade eventually. Plastic is a toxin that stays in the environment, marine animals ingest it, and it enters their bodies and then ours.”
Some social justice activists who work in low-income urban neighborhoods or communities of color also argue that plastic bags are a particular scourge. “A lot of the waste ends up in our communities,” says Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of UPROSE, an environmental and social justice-oriented community organization in Brooklyn.
“Plastic bags not only destroy the physical infrastructure,” she says, referring to the way they clog up storm drains and other systems, “they contribute to emissions.”
And she points out that marine plastic pollution is a threat to low-income people who fish for their dinner: “So many frontline communities depend on food coming from the ocean.”
That’s why her group supported New York City’s bag fee even though it’s more of a burden on lower-income citizens. A single mom, or someone working two jobs, is more likely to have to do her shopping in a rush on the way home from work than to go out specifically with a tote bag in hand.
But for UPROSE, that concern is outweighed by the negative impacts of plastic bags on disadvantaged communities.
Throwing This Out Here: Plastic Bags Are Amazing and You Should Appreciate Them More
Listen Up America: You Need to Learn How to Recycle. Again.
They are useful, inexpensive, handy, lightweight, clean, reusable, recyclable, and versatile.
So why on Earth are politicians working with grocers and Labor Bosses to tax and ban them? Greed.
Plus, supporters of these bag taxes and bag bans think you’re stupid. They think you’ll swoon if they say it’s for the environment, even though their anti-bag crusades harm the planet.
They think you’re too dumb to weigh the costs and benefits yourself and make your own judgment.
And they hope you’re too busy to look into their true motivations and see the cozy arrangements they have to use bag taxes and bans to line their pockets with your hard-earned money.
Like cigarettes, plastic bags have recently gone from a tolerated nuisance to a widely despised and discouraged vice.
Last month, the New York City Council passed a 5-cent-per-bag fee on single-use bags handed out by most retailers.
Two weeks ago, the Massachusetts State Senate passed a measure that would ban plastic bags from being dispensed by many retail businesses and require a charge of 10 cents or more for a recycled paper or reusable bag.
The Massachusetts proposal may not become law this year, but it’s the latest sign that the plastic bag industry is losing this war. Already in Massachusetts, 32 towns and cities have passed bag bans or fees.
So have at least 88 localities in California, including the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco, plus cities and towns in more than a dozen other states and more than a dozen other countries.
The adverse impacts of plastic bags are undeniable: When they’re not piling up in landfills, they’re blocking storm drains, littering streets, getting stuck in trees, and contaminating oceans, where fish, seabirds, and other marine animals eat them or get tangled up in them.
As longtime plastic bag adversary Ian Frazier recently reported in The New Yorker, “In 2014, plastic grocery bags were the seventh most common item collected during the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup, behind smaller debris such as cigarette butts, plastic straws, and bottle caps.”
The New York City Sanitation Department collects more than 1,700 tons of single-use carry-out bags every week and has to spend $12.5 million a year to dispose of them.
Bag bans cut this litter off at the source: In San Jose, California, a plastic bag ban led to an 89 percent reduction in the number of plastic bags winding up in the city’s storm drains. Fees have a smaller, but still significant, effect. Washington, DC’s government estimates that its 5-cent bag tax has led to a 60 percent reduction in the number of these bags being used, although that figure is contested by other sources.
Is plastic really worse than paper?
But advocates of these laws and journalists who cover the issue often neglect to ask what will replace plastic bags and what the environmental impact of that replacement will be. People still need bags to bring home their groceries. And the most common substitute, paper bags, may be just as bad or worse, depending on the environmental problem you’re most concerned about.
That’s leading to a split in the anti-bag movement. Some bills, like in Massachusetts, try to reduce the use of paper bags as well as plastic, but still favor paper. Others, like in New York City, treat all single-use bags equally. Even then, the question remains as to whether single-use bags are necessarily always worse than reusable ones.
Studies of bags’ environmental impacts over their life cycle have reached widely varying conclusions. Some are funded by plastic industry groups, like the ironically named American Progressive Bag Alliance.
Even studies conducted with the purest of intentions depend on any number of assumptions. How many plastic bags are replaced by one cotton tote bag?
If a plastic bag is reused in the home as the garbage bag in a bathroom waste bin, does that reduce its footprint by eliminating the need for another small plastic garbage bag?
If your chief concern is climate change, things get even muddier.
One of the most comprehensive research papers on the environmental impact of bags, published in 2007 by an Australian state government agency, found that paper bags have a higher carbon footprint than plastic.
That’s primarily because more energy is required to produce and transport paper bags.
Increasingly, environmentalists are pushing for laws that include fees for all single-use bags, and that require paper bags to be made with recycled content, which could lower their carbon footprint.
The measure now under consideration in Massachusetts, for example, would mandate that single-use paper bags contain at least 40 percent recycled fiber.
That’s the percentage the Massachusetts Sierra Club has advocated for at the state level and when lobbying for municipal bag rules.
But what if reusable bags aren’t good either?
As the Australian study noted, a cotton bag has major environmental impacts of its own. Only 2.4 percent of the world’s cropland is planted with cotton, yet it accounts for 24 percent of the global market for insecticides and 11 percent for pesticides, the World Wildlife Fund reports.
A pound of cotton requires more than 5,000 gallons of water on average, a thirst far greater than that of any vegetable and even most meats. And cotton, unlike paper, is not currently recycled in most places.
The Australian study concluded that the best option appears to be a reusable bag, but one made from recycled plastic, not cotton.
“A substantial shift to more durable bags would deliver environmental gains through reductions in greenhouse gases, energy and water use, resource depletion and litter,” the study concluded.
“The shift from one single-use bag to another single-use bag may improve one environmental outcome, but be offset by another environmental impact.”
But studies conducted in Australia or Europe have limited applicability in the US, particularly when you’re considering climate impact, because every country has a different energy mix. In fact, every region of the US has a different energy mix.
“There’s no easy answer,” says Eric Goldstein, New York City environment director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which backed NYC’s bag fee.
“There are so very many variables. Here’s just one tiny example: Does the paper for paper bags come from a recycled paper mill on Staten Island or a virgin forest in northern Canada?
As far as I know, nobody has done the definitive analysis, which would necessarily need to have a large number of caveats and qualifications.
Also, this question is something like asking, ‘Would you prefer to get a parking ticket or a tax assessment?’ It depends on the specifics, but it’s better to avoid both wherever possible.”
Goldstein is confident that if people switch to reusable bags, even cotton ones, and use them consistently, that will ultimately be better for the environment.
The ideal city bag policy would probably involve charging for paper and plastic single-use bags, as New York City has decided to do, while giving out reusable recycled plastic bags to those who need them, especially to low-income communities and seniors.
(The crunchy rich should already have more than enough tote bags from PBS and Whole Foods.)
The larger takeaway is that no bag is free of environmental impact, whether that’s contributing to climate change, ocean pollution, water scarcity, or pesticide use.
The instinct to favor reusable bags springs from an understandable urge to reduce our chronic overconsumption, but the bags we use are not the big problem.
“Eat one less meat dish a week—that’s what will have a real impact on the environment,” says Tyler. “It’s what we put in the bag at the grocery store that really matters.”
On 1 October, 2013 citizens of Homer, Alaska overturned the plastic bag ban by a vote of 56% to 44% or 661-519. A total of 1,180 votes were cast out of 4,337 registered voters for a 27.2% voter turnout. (City of Homer, 2013)
Local ordinances that implement plastic carryout bag bans are very similar from one community to the next. The ordinances ban the distribution of plastic carryout bags and impose a fee of 10 or 25 cents on paper bags to discourage paper bag use and encourage the use of reusable shopping bags.
One of the more interesting parts of the ordinance is the exemption granted to families that participate in the California Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) or in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) also known as the Food Stamp program. Participants in these programs are allowed to receive free paper bags when they shop; whereas, all others must purchase paper bags or purchase and use reusable bags. In addition, participants may be eligible for free reusable bags at the option of the store.
Due to economic conditions in the United States, the rolls of people who are on public assistance programs have swelled. In California, there are 3.97 million Food Stamp participants and 1.45 million WIC participants. All of these are eligible to receive free paper bags and potentially free reusable bags when they shop. The question is, who pays for these free paper and reusable bags?
Some of my objections include the following:
- · The “exempt” shopper has no incentive to use reusable bags since a free paper bag will always be provided.
- · The “exempt” shopper who is provided a free reusable bag has no incentive to bring the bag with them next time they shop since the store will always provide a free paper or reusable bag.
- · The “exempt” shopper does not have to be concerned about bringing enough reusable bags, since free paper or reusable bags will always be provided.
WASHINGTON, DC BAG TAX AFTER 3 YEARS: DIRTIER STREETS, BIGGER GOVERNMENT
A funny thing happened when plastic bag tax supporters tried to prove how successful their coercive, Big Government law has been in Washington, DC: they inadvertently undermined their justifications of the law.
They conducted a spurious, biased and largely meaningless survey to see how the law was doing after three years in force. It was a survey that the Washington Post misled its readers was “independent.” But even with the advocates’ thumbs pressing down on the scale – as we document below – the results came back with bad news for bag tax boosters.
The poll was directed by OpinionWorks of Maryland, whose motto is “public spirited research.” (The motto is a signal to potential government bureaucrat clients that the polls will be crafted to support expansion of Big Government.)
But in a shocking departure from sound polling practices that went unreported by government-friendly media, OpinionWorks used District government translators, and staff from two activist groups with a vested interest in the bag tax, to help conduct the survey of District businesses. (Report of Findings, page 2)
In addition, in its business survey, the polling company weeded out any business that was not complying with the law, since that might hurt the poll’s compliance results. (Report of Findings, page 2)
So what did these book-cookers come up with? They claimed:
• 80% of “District residents are using fewer disposable bags”
• Households are averaging a 60% reduction in bag use since the tax took effect
• “50% fewer disposable bags being purchased by businesses compared to before the law was implemented”
The bottom line, they alleged, was “an overwhelming reduction in bag use among District residents.” (Report of Findings, page 3)
Gosh, if only we could compare those claims against some objective hard numbers … oh wait, we can!
The District gets tax revenue for every bag sold to a customer (the government kicks back 20% to 40% of this revenue to the stores to win their continued support for the law, but that’s an article for another day). So the Washington Post, to its credit, looked at the actual tax revenue the bag tax brought in to government coffers.
Yes, rising. Between fiscal years 2012 and 2013, for example, the revenue increase “represents well over 200,000 additional bags” purchased.
The Post continued: “According to the original estimates, the city was expected to collect $1.05 million in fiscal 2013, which ended Sept. 30. Instead, it collected in excess of $2 million.”
Of course, the great thing about Big Government is it never has to say it’s sorry. It predicted, either in good but incompetent faith or in bad faith, that it would take about $1 million from working families last year through this new tax. Instead, it took $2 million. But DC’s not crying. That’s more money for them and less for its residents!
It’s important to note the lessons here.
• Bag use is rising three years in, rather than declining.
• Government estimates about this law were entirely untrustworthy and inaccurate.
• The financial hit on working families was more severe than they admitted before the vote.
• The special interests and government agencies with a vested interest in this tax are untrustworthy and their “independent” surveys are demonstrably false.
Of course, there is one part of the faux-study that is probably accurate: it found that businesses that collect the tax generally like the bag tax. And why wouldn’t they? They get a kickback on each bag sold, and are “forced” to charge for something they used to give away free. (The District estimated that it would kick back more than $3 million to District business owners in the first four years, directly from shoppers’ pockets, not counting any gains those owners would make from distributing fewer bags.)
No wonder most bag taxes are crafted by politicians working hand-in-hand with the businesses who will profit from them (and who just happen to be campaign donors to the same politicians).
Remember that this pitiful study was cited by the District government and treated as meaningful by one of America’s leading newspapers. It has no doubt been cited again and again by pro-tax governments and special interests nationwide, almost none of whom likely read the actual survey, as we did.
For example, the survey asked residents to estimate how many bags they think they used to use three years ago, and how many bags they recall seeing littering their neighborhoods “three or four years ago!” (Report of Findings, page 3)
The evidentiary reliability of such questions approaches zero. It is utterly useless to treat those answers as legitimate. And yet everyone did, because the ruse is to pretend these bag taxes reduce pollution.
The survey, as inaccurate as it has been documented to be, did have other interesting findings that bag tax advocates have tried to bury.
Notably, 12% fewer residents in 2013, after the bag tax had been in effect for three years, graded their neighborhoods as an “A” or “B” in terms of being “clean and free of trash” as gave their neighborhood those grades in a 2010 survey that had asked the same question.
So after millions in new taxes, hundreds of thousands spent on enforcement and Big Government bureaucracy and a “public education” war against convenient plastic bags, District residents say their neighborhoods have more litter and trash. (Report of Findings, page 4)
Can you say total failure?
The study also showed that among racial groups, the District racial group with the lowest median household income, African-Americans, reduced their bag use the least. (Report of Findings, page 5) In other words, bag taxes harm the poorest people the most, those least likely to afford the tax and those least likely to afford buying the more expensive alternatives the anti-bag forces portray as better options. Also, residents over age 50 reduced their bag use less than those under 50: bag taxes disproportionately harm older Americans who need the bags’ lightweight convenience.
The study also found that even after three years of the bag tax, only 58% of District residents reported bringing more costly, so-called “reusable” bags with them a majority of the time when they shop. (Report of Findings, page 7)
And some businesses apparently remain more interested in serving their customers than shafting them. Only two-thirds of residents reported “always” being charged for their convenient “disposable” shopping bags.
(Who could blame these businesses? Twenty-one percent of District residents admit leaving the District often or occasionally to shop elsewhere to avoid the bag tax. [Report of Findings, page 8])
We put “disposable” in quotation marks because most plastic bags, as even this anti-bag survey concedes, are reused rather than disposed of, another fact that demolishes the ostensible purpose of a bag tax. The government’s own survey of District residents found: “Only one in ten (10%) said they typically throw the bags away.” (Report of Findings, page 7)
In the survey of businesses, most businesses claim that they are purchasing between 31% and 80% fewer bags than before the bag tax. (Report of Findings, page 13) But as the actual government revenue data show, bag use is double what the government told us it would now be when the bill was being debated, and actually increased last year. As the Washington Post put it: “In fact, bag tax collections have proven remarkably stable since the nickel-per-bag fee debuted in January 2010.”
Ominously, the government-ordered report threatens District residents and non-compliant businesses with further scrutiny to achieve the ends the current tax is failing to achieve. As is always the case with insatiable government, the taxpayer-funded report concludes: “Continued or additional enforcement of the bag law may be required.” (Report of Findings, page 7)
And so it goes.
It is sad to see government peddling bogus research, and even more disturbing to see the media treat it as legitimate.