People use fewer bags when charged for them

Since we’re all about plastic bags over here lately, it may interest you to know that the bag tax in Washington D.C. reduced the total number of bags used last month to 3.3 million, down from 22.5 million in the previous month without a tax.

This is great news! Not only are far fewer bags being used and thrown away — a waste of resources and damaging to the environment — but the revenues from the nickel-a-bag tax will fund a local river cleanup project. That’s almost $150,000 in cleanup money from January alone!

Some critics of the bag tax have pointed out that the revenue is coming in below expectations. Okay. Sure. This is why the framing of environmental problems is so important. If what we’re trying to do is reduce the number of discarded plastic bags clogging up our environment, then the bag tax is an unmitigated success. If we’re trying to plug holes in the local budget, then maybe it hasn’t accomplished what had been proposed.

According to my standard – the reduction of trash in the environment – this is a great success story, and a pretty nice example of reducing an unwanted environmental cost by internalizing an economic externality.

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  1. Donna - April 15, 2010

    I live in a college town in WA. Also, politically, it is one of the most conservative areas of the state. Every time I go to the store, I see more customers using their own bags. At one store, we get a 5 cent rebate for each bag we bring in. At another store, the bag refund is 3 cents. Even if I don’t get a bag refund, I still take my own bags, or opt out of getting a bag at all. I see a lot of people doing this. We don’t even have a bag tax.
    Those people who really believe in reduce, reuse, recycle, won’t need a penalty to practice what they believe.

  2. Phil - April 15, 2010

    I live in Washington, DC.
    People who care about the three R’s may act positively to impact the environment, and there were a lot of people who went to the effort to use re-usable bags when they went shopping even before the mandatory bag fee.
    However, I would say that putting the fee into place was really required.
    A) Now clerks ask you whether you want a bag, rather than just automatically putting your purchases into double plastic bags.
    B) Merchants and Stores went out of their way to provide free reusable bags to customers in advance of the implementation. The local Republican party even made bags that said “Say No to the Bag Tax” and then sold them for $5 apiece!
    C) The whole fee thing does seem heavy handed, and I’ve seen clerks ‘forget’ to charge customers the fee. But, sometimes the heavy hand of government is required.

  3. Alex - April 15, 2010

    Plastic bags are an unnecessary burden on the environment and ultimately on our society. Here in the state of Washington our landfills are almost full, so I support any effort to reduce the amount of trash created. Yes, I know that plastic bags can be recycled, but people who do not care about using extra bags probably do not care much about recycling either!

  4. Anonymous - April 15, 2010

    I currently work in a market that uses recycled/recyclable plastic bags which are stronger than the average so we don’t have to use as many. We also offer free recycling of plastic bags, plastic and glass bottles and aluminum cans to customers, and sell, as well as frequently give away, canvas bags to customers (and a lot of our customers will bring in loads of their own bags so we don’t have to use ours). The company itself picks up and recycles all our store-generated plastic wrapping, installs a bailing machine in each market to condense (and subsequently recycle) all our cardboard and paper, and employs reusable plastic crates for all our produce, bread, meat and ready-to-eat meals. Each store uses LED lighting and natural light, fully closed freezer cases, and covers for all our refrigerated cases to conserve energy, and also recycles the water used to run our equipment. This is just a fraction of what the company does to reduce its impact on the environment. If only every retail store took such an active role in providing environmentally-friendly shopping!

  5. Theresa Rieve - April 15, 2010

    I have used canvas bags for over 3 years and would never go back to plastic. I carry the canvas ones in the car and if I forget to take them in the store, I go back for them. Once people really try canvas bags, they would never go back to plastic.
    First, the plastic (or paper) bags that are given away free are of the cheapest and weakest variety possible; if you single-bag, you won’t make it back to your car without groceries spilling all over the parking lot. Many plastic bags come with holes already in them, as well, so that a bag which tears easily in any case is almost guaranteed to come apart before you get to your car. The plastic bags are also hard to hold (they tend to leave welts on hands or arms), and the things you put in them fall all over each other and get squished. Plus, each bag holds almost nothing, so that you need many, many, bags. (For those who say the bags are “convenient”–how convenient is it to chase your groceries all over the parking lot or to fish them out from under the car? Or to deal with the inevitable squished groceries?) In contrast, I have roomy, square-bottomed canvas bags that hold large amounts of groceries, and they have soft, sturdy handles that are very comfortable to hold (goodbye, welts!). I can carry much more in fewer bags, because even though the weight may be more, the load is easier to handle because the groceries are not rolling around in the bag. My bags, some of which were given free as promotional items and some of which cost $1, are still as strong and sturdy as ever, even after 3 years of use and laundering.
    And in our area, what a lot of people don’t realize is that they ARE paying for plastic or paper–because everyone who brings in their own bags gets a 3 or 5 cent discount per bag, depending on the store. (Store owners do this voluntarily, because the plastic and paper ones cost THEM money). So my $1 bags have paid for themselves many times over.

  6. Geektronica - April 15, 2010

    Wow, that is a dramatic reduction – an order of magnitude. Nothing else could have that kind of power – all the education and nagging in the world could never produce an 85% reduction in bag consumption.
    I say (on this taxiest of tax days, April 15) tax those bags!

  7. CT NJ - April 19, 2010

    The reduction in the number of plastic bags used is great! I remember visiting South Africa and being surprised that they charged a quarter per bag. And the store clerk was surprised that I had no idea!
    Anyway, how do we get that tax applied in other states? Taxing is a powerful deterent to using the plastic bags AND I would go back to the car to get my canvas bags when necessary.

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