Friday, January 22, 2010

2010: Bagging Plastic To Spite Our Face

We implemented the bag tax in DC. As expected, it's resulted in a dramatic dropoff in the number of plastic bags people use at the supermarket. Supposedly this is going to help the Anacostia.

The great irony of this tax is that the more effective it is at changing consumer behavaior regarding supermarket bags, the less effective it will be at cleaning up the Anacostia.

DC projected $3.55 million from this tax in 2010, and slightly less ($3 million) in 2011. The figured drops off dramatically from there. I am not sure how they came up with this math - e.g. why people would suddely, two years into the tax, start paying for the bags half as often. Almost everyone I know changed their behavior pretty much immediately.

But lets look at a few other figures too.

Supermarket plastic bags used annually in the U.S.: 100 billion.*
Population of the U.S.: 305 million
Bags used per person per year (est): 327

Sounds like a lot, doesn't it? Well...

Gallons of oil consumed annually in the U.S.: 318 billion
Gallons of oil needed to make 100 billion bags: 500 million
Percentage of U.S.'s oil consumption used on supermarket bags: 1.57%
Gallons of oil used per person per year on plastic bags: 1.6 gallons

That's right. 1.6 gallons.

Let's assume that the numbers I got are low estimates, since they were from the Wall Street Journal (even though they were cited by a bag-recycling web site.)

Let's quadruple them. Now you have 6.4 gallons per year.

How many gallons of gas do you use every week? How much energy do you use to heat and cool your house, and power your TV so you can watch "Real World DC?" Trust me. It's far more than that every week.

Okay, well we need money to clean up the Anacostia. What about the revenue?

Let's look at some basic figures for a minute.

Population of DC: 600,000
Bags used per year in DC @ 327 per person: 196 million
Total potential annual revenue from the bag tax, if nobody stopped using plastic bags: @ 3.5 cents per bag**: 6.8 million
DC's estimate for years 1 and 2: 3.5 million and $3 million

Does anyone else think that DC's estimates are, er, a bit optimistic? Like absolute fantasy? That would mean that the tax resulted in only a 50% reduction in bag use.

Have you guys been to a supermarket since January 1st? Nobody's paying the tax.

I see a lot of bottles and cans. Not so many bags.
Further, the "per person per year" estimates of carryout bag use include all the bags that are not subject to the tax, that is, from establishments that don't sell food. Like Home Depot and Marshall's. And any place that doesn't have sitdown seating is also not subject, like crappy chinese carryout places.

My estimate is that bag use is reduced by 80-85% in the first year. My estimate for the revenue from this tax is under $1 million in the first year.

OK, so we're not going to save the planet by banning bags, and there probably won't be a lot of cash coming in either. But woo hoo, 80% less trash, right?

As readers of my blog know, I hate trash. I pick it up from my street every day when I walk my dog. I am an environmentalist. I would like nothing more than to see some kind of useful legislation passed to help trash and the environment - like a bottle bill. I am personally, intimately familiar with exactly what kind of trash ends up on the streets of DC, and consequently, in the river.

So what I can't help wondering is, have these people who want to save the river ever looked at it? Do they live in DC? Do they have any concept of the kinds of trash that are produced in this town?

This NRDC blog post which is, ironically, a love-fest for the DC bag tax, has several choice pictures of the Anacostia. One of them is reproduced above.

Please take a look at those pictures and tell me, honestly, what difference you think there will be because there are 80% fewer plastic bags being handed out at Safeway. Mind you, Eddie Leonard's Chinese Carryout will still be giving plastic bags, and certainly everyone drinking their Schlitz Malt Liqour on the sidewalk will still be buying one for 5 cents. I am pretty sure that the segment of the population that tosses their 24 ounce can-in-bag on the sidewalk after conusmption will not be bringing their own canvas bag to the liquor store.

I can see, I am pretty sure, a single plastic bag in all four of the pictures on that blog post. On the other hand, I see an unbelievable number of bottles, cans, paper, tires, whatever. Basically, everything BUT plastic bags.

That's because plastic bags are a tiny portion of the trash we produce.

The people who want to clean up the Anacostia know this. But their goal was to get an appropriation of money that went directly to their cause, not to reduce trash. Unfortunately, it is almost certain that they will get neither, but the residents of DC will get a really inconvenient and regressive tax.

I want to clean up the Anacostia. The right way to do this is to figure out how much it would cost to clean and maintain the river, and appropriate it from the general fund. This means we all pay our fair share, and it gets done.

I also want to improve the overall trash situation in DC. I want nothing more. I am an anti-trash crusader. But every day, when I pick up trash, you know what I see? Bottles and cans. The only plastic bags I ever see contain carryout restaurant trash, which won't be taxed, and liquor bottles, which certainly won't go away.

If we want to solve trash in this city, and the Anacsotia, we need a bottle bill. It has worked almost overnight in every place it's been implemented. Even as some people don't change their habits, others are happy to clean up the world for 5 or 10 cents a bottle. It's such a no-brainer.

But it takes more work than a bag tax. On the other hand, it will also do something. But around here everyone is so selfishly focused on their cause that they are willing sacrifice the greater good for a short-term benefit to their single cause. The so-called environmentalists who got this thing passed should be ashamed of themselves. There is already a great deal of backlash in the blog and media from people who think the tax is stupid, and complain because now they have to buy bags to replace the ones that used to be free. The ones we used for dog crap and trash and so on. Oh yeah - and trash bags you buy are made with about 5 to 10 times as much oil as a typical supermarket bag. How awesome for the environment is that?

So at the end of the day, we have a tax that will almost certainly raise very little money, inconvenience and annoy many, and have little or no impact on trash.

But we also lost something very valuable: goodwill. If we ever had a chance of passing a bottle bill in the near future, we wasted that political capital on this bag tax. Imagine what all those people who hate the bag tax will say when you try to convince them to return their bottles? Probably, "enough is enough."

So thanks, so-called environmentalists, for selfishly taking an opportunity to make some real change, and squandering it for your narrowly focused cause.

Myself, I'll still be picking up trash every day just as always, except I'll be paying for the bags to pick it up with now. The Anaocostia will probably look pretty much the same, and we've lost any chance at a bottle bill.

*Source: The Wall Street Journal (via

** The bag tax is 4 cents per bag, or 3 cents per bag if a business offers a reusable bag credit. 1 cent of the 5 cent tax goes directly to the business and is not paid to DC. I split the difference for this estimate.


jackblack said...

stop whining already..there is no way that using less platic bgs can be a bad thing.

Alex said...

Seriously, stop whining. The revenue from the tax is almost irrelevant. The important thing is that it is succeeding in causing many people to stop using something that is a) unnecessary and b) destructive to the environment.

Also, I don't see any connection between the bag tax and a bottle and can bill. We need that too, and it's not a handful of internet anti- bag tax ranters that will stop it -- it's lobbying from the beverage industry. That's why it's been blocked in the past.

Jamie said...

The bottle bill was not blocked by lobbying from the beverage industry. It failed because of racial divides in the city, it was cast as regressive and offensive to poor black residents of DC. This is easily researched via google if you are interested, for example:

The connection is that the bag tax was sold as solving problems that would actually be solved by a bottle bill.

If your only response to everything I've said here is "stop whining" then why bother caring about anything?

I've tried to explain that the bag tax will almost certainly not achieve its stated goals and does very little to help the environment.

For something that directly impacts the daily lives of nearly everyone, isn't that worth understanding?

But unfortunately, your responses are typical of most people's. You just buy what you are being told about the tax without actually trying to understand what it really does. Which is almost nothing - you'd do more for the environment by trading a single car trip in a year with a metro trip.

It makes you feel good with very little actual consequence. It's easy to do something that makes you feel good. It's harder to do something that is actually effective. That's my point.

At the end of the day, if the tax is successful, the Anacostia won't get any money. Don't you want the river cleaned up? Isn't that why the tax was created?

Anonymous said...

And I need a place to put my dog poop. I've resorted to either buying groceries in Maryland or loading up on those fruit and vegetable plastic bags which are just not thick enough to safely pick up poo. I just can't bring myself to spend 5 cents for a plastic bag no matter where the revenue ends up.

Jamie said...

I think it is important to note that if you consume as many of these bags as a typical person does in a year (350), and actually pay five cents each, it's less than 20 bucks a year.

I don't oppose this tax because it's unduly expensive. I just think it's stupid and annoying and will not result in the goals it seeks. It's just another little annoying thing about DC, which, at the margin, taken with everything else that's annoying about DC, will cause some people to choose to live and shop elsewhere.

And honestly even though rationally I know that it's hardly any money, I too am choosing to buy groceries in Silver Spring on my way home from work sometimes, because I also use these bags for dog poop and picking up street trash and don't like to feel like I'm being nickeled and dimed.

It's not like I would go out of my way to avoid shopping in DC, but all other things being equal, I use the bags and am choosing to shop somewhere else when it's convenient and I can get them for free.

Yes. It is costing DC tax revenue. Probably hard to quantify and maybe not much, but undoubtedly it's something. Too bad.

jackblack said...

so silly of you..

Nina @Daro said...

I agree with Jack Black.

kob said...

Great post.

It should be easy to avoid paying this tax. The WSJ points out:

>>The law specifically excludes bags that "package bulk items, such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, grains, candy, or small hardware items." It also excludes those that "contain or wrap frozen foods, meat, or, potted plants, or other items where dampness may be a problem." Other exceptions include unwrapped prepared foods and bakery goods, as well as bags provided by pharmacists to contain prescription drugs, newspaper bags, door-hanger bags and laundry dry-cleaning bags. Also tax free: "Bags sold in packages containing multiple bags intended for use as garbage, pet waste, or yard waste bags.<<

That covers just about anything I buy. Problem is the local Safeway doesn't make the exception and just applies the tax.

The bag tax won't accomplish a thing.

Jamie said...

Excellent, so:

"Bags sold in packages containing multiple bags intended for use as garbage, pet waste, or yard waste bags."

Supermarkets just need to start selling 20-packs of supermarket bags near the checkout for $0.29 each and label them as "bathroom trash can liners."

Problem solved.

@JackBlack, Nina, everyone else..

I find it fascinating that I can write a well-researched post that analyzes the actual environmental impact of this tax, and shows that it is almost inconsequential, and the best anyone has in response is "stop whining" and "so silly."

I'm glad that carrying around a reusable bag makes you all feel better. But I would actually like to do something that HELPS then environment instead of just makes me feel better. You do realize how little 1.6 gallons of oil is, right? And you did see the pictures of the Anacostia?

That is why I wrote this post. Because the tax is stupid, as kob noted difficult to administer and enforce, and is yet another layer of law whose effects were poorly researched and not well understood when the law was passed.

In and of itself it's just another nuisance in DC, but is speaks to our method of "reactionary legislation." Someone wants a speed bump? Give them a speed bump. Some special interest wants a new law? Give it to 'em. The result is a city that has a ridiculous number of silly little laws and annoyances and very little high-level planning and management. The result is an arcane mess that's complicated for business and annoying for residents. The longer-term result is that people choose to live, shop and open businesses elsewhere.

Problems don't get solved this way.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't normally say "stop whining," but really it's the only appropriate response to someone who devotes pages and pages to a 5-cent tax. It's not as bad as the people who drive to Maryland or VA to avoid the tax -- that's really inexcusably stupid -- but it's still whining. It's not a perfect tax, but from my own casual observations, it is changing behavior and far fewer bags are being used. And that's a good thing.

Also, to your characterization of your post as "well-researched" -- while I think some research went into your post, not enough did, and unfortunately it was undermined by many ill-founded assumptions. Thus my comment of "stop whining."

Jamie said...

"it is changing behavior and far fewer bags are being used. And that's a good thing."

You haven't said what you think my ill-formed assumptions are- but you have a big one: that forcing people to avoid disposable bags is good.

Why aren't you even willing to question that assumption in the face of everything I've said here?

I think it's bad. Because it has an effect on trash, oil consumption and greenhouse gas emissions that is at best inconsequential, and at worst unknown since we don't know how people who used to re-use these bags will replace them.

I also think it's bad because the actual goal of this tax - to clean up the Anacostia - will be paid for by the poorest residents of DC.

I think it's bad to write laws without even trying to understand the consequences, and seriously considering the costs and benefits.

You think it's good just because "fewer bags must be good." Regardless of the cost and who pays for it, I guess.

What else would you legislate to save at most 1.6 gallons of oil per person per year?

Seriously - if you don't care about what I'm saying then you don't need to respond to it. But if you're going to actually comment here and criticize it, then I would hope you would do so with some kind of argument beyond just "stop whining, it's a good thing." That is not an argument.