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.
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 reusablebags.com)
** 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.