Yesterday, our increasingly disappointing Mayor Adrian Fenty signed into law a new tax that levees 5 cents on each plastic bag given to a customer at a retail checkout. Ostensibly, the purpose of this tax is to encourage people to bring their own reusable bags, with the revenue being used to offset the cost of cleaning up the Anacostia River. Which presumably has been destroyed by plastic bags. Only four cents of this tax will go to the cleanup fund, with the remaining cent going back to the retailer, a recent paradoxical twist on the whole "baggate" saga. How is this different than just having a four-cent per bag tax, if you're going to give one cent back to the retailer? Is this some kind of kick-back for protection services? Avoidance of Federal taxes? I thought about it over and over but could make no sense of it. But moving on, that is only a red herring in the larger idiocy that is the bag tax.
Now, I am no hater of the environment, even the Anacostia River. I am generally fully in favor of spending money on protecting our environment. But throwing together a sloppy revenue-generation scheme such as this is, quite simply, the wrong way to go about it. Below is a list of things that suck about this tax. This list is by no means complete. Rather, these are just some of the blindingly obvious problems with it that came to mind right away. Chances are, in practice, there will be others.
The tax will be difficult for businesses to implement.
The vast majority of plastic bags come from supermarkets. This should be obvious to anyone who eats. Have you seen how many of these things you get each time? Single bags, double bags, bags for wine. By the time you are done at Giant, you've probably got about 20 of them.
That's only a buck in taxes. (Or is it 80 cents?) Most of us probably won't even notice it. But the cashier now has to count every single bag they use, and add in a charge for them. Nothing against cashiers, but these guys are already distracted enough as it is with food stamps, produce lookups, not to mention their cell phones. How the heck is this going to work out? However it does, it's sure not going to speed up the checkout process.
Giant and Safeway want nothing less than something to further slow down checkouts for no reason --- in the big picture, that would cost them money as they would have to hire more checkout people to meet the same demand. I will bet anyone right now that every major supermarket simply continues to do business as usual and pays the tax based on the number of bags they buy, not the number that they "sell" at checkout. The cost will simply become another cost of doing business for them, like any other tax or expense.
In the end, there will be just as many bags going out the door. No benefit to people who choose to use their own bags (or, possibly, the same benefit as currently exists from stores that give a discount for bringing your own bag). Marginally higher prices on everything, for everyone, regardless of how bag-nificent a customer you are.
Result: same number of bags in the world.
Most People Like Getting These Bags
I, and the vast majority of people I know, save supermarket bags and use them for things like cat and dog poop, bathroom and kitchen trash bags, and lunch bags, among 101 possible uses for a cheap, disposable bag. If I find that I actually do have to pay 5 cents a bag at the store, I'll probably just buy shitloads of them at Costco instead and keep a crate of them in my car. I am just not a "reusable bag" sort of person. They get dirty if you spill something, and you need to remember to bring them every time. You need to make sure you have enough of them. And at the end of the day, you still need bags for dog and cat poop.
Result: same number of bags in the world.
People Who Don't Care, Don't Care
The people who are most likely to throw these bags on the sidewalk are probably the same people who are least likely to bring their own bags. Even if they actually did have to pay an extra five cents for a bag at the checkout (which isn't very likely as I've already discussed), they would just pay it without noticing or thinking.
Result: Same number of bags in the world.
And Where Does That Money Go?
The chances of the revenue from this actually going to clean up the Anacostia river, instead of paying for trips to Dubai and fur coats for OTR employees, is probably about zero. Do you really think that this "fund" will go to pick up trash in the river when we can't make the annual budget ends meet? Yeah, right.
Result: Anacostia River Remains Craptastic.
I am sure there are other reasons why this tax is stupid that I haven't even thought of. But the bottom line is, on the slim chance that this tax even hits the consumer at the per-bag level, very few people are likely to change their most basic shopping habits over a nickel a bag. Some really cheap people like myself will probably just buy their own bags in bulk for the 1/100th of a cent they actually cost, but most others will just pay the tax, probably amounting to a total of 50 bucks a year at most.
Please, just raise our damn income taxes if you need more money instead of this circus-game tax that will probably cost more to implement than it will raise. Since that's how it's going to work out in the end. And at least an income tax is not regressive and we can talk about it for what it is.
Update, July 10: Seeing as I got in Express Blog Log today, I wanted to comment on this tax in comparison to bag taxes implemented elsewhere. I would like to note that information about the effect of the bag taxes is very difficult to find in mainstream media or from independent sources. The results that have been published about Ireland's tax are only the positive effects. The negative effects are from articles typically published by the petroleum industry.
While I am naturally mistrustful of these figures if the only source I can find is the petroleoum industry, I am equally mistrustful of the fact that there is NO PUBLISHED REPORT from a truly objective source that documents the negative effects of the bag taxes, namely, increase in other plastic use, and increase in paper bag use, which are effects that one would obviously expect to see.
So, while I think the negative figures must be taken with a grain of salt, it is obvious that there would be consequences and it is highly concerning that there has been no "legitimate" study done of the effects of these taxes. Or, perhaps, could it be that the governments don't want people to know the true effects of these taxes since they like the revenue?
Ireland: 33 cent tax on plastic bags only. Result: 90% drop in grocery store plastic bag consumption. 400% increase in sales of other heavier plastic bags from stores (e.g. trash bags). Overall amount of plastic resin used in Ireland increased 10%. Unable to find information on obvious increase in use of paper bags from stores.
San Francisco: 17 cent tax on plastic bags only. Result: all stores switched to paper bags or heavy plastic bags marked as "reusable."
Comaprison to DC Tax:
1) The DC tax is 5 cents per bag, less than 1/3 of the San Francisco tax and 1/6th of the Ireland tax. The cost to consumers is not great enough to drive any change in shopping habits.
2) Taxing both paper and plastic bags. Paper bags are generally understood to cause more enviromental harm because of the much greater resources required to produce them, though they are biodegradble, unlike plastic bags. In San Francisco, the tax has caused stores to largely switch to paper bags, meaning there is questionable overall benefit to the environment. In Ireland, adoption of reusable bags seems much higher than in San Francisco, but has resulted in a dramatic increase in purchase of other bags at stores, typically trash bin liners, resulting actually in an increase in plastic consumption.