34 Comments


  1. ·

    I mostly feel saddened at your joy that a tax has been imposed. A tax is like the death penalty, lethal self defense, an officer-involved shooting, beating a suspect, or an abortion — maybe necessary but never EVER a good thing. A tax, just like a spanking, doesn’t teach the thing you want — it teaches the recipient that they should do something which avoids the punishment. I hope that you get what you want, but I expect that you won’t.

    And what bothers me most is that voters are willing to use force to cause themselves to do something they’re not willing to do peacefully. Something is wrong in that equation, something very wrong.

    (Oh, and taxes are definitely applied using force. Try not paying yours if you doubt me. Men with guns will come to help you pay your tax.)


  2. ·

    A tax is like the death penalty, lethal self defense, an officer-involved shooting, beating a suspect, or an abortion

    Gee, not even a little melodramatic? :) But seriously, pretty much everything in life involves tradeoffs, has good and bad sides. But taxes shouldn’t be seen as inherently bad. They are financial decisions we make in the collective process of deciding what we should take care of personally vs. what we should take care of as a society. Sure there are dumb taxes. There are also sensible ones. It’s hard not to see this as a sensible tax.

    taxes are definitely applied using force

    I agree that in the strictest sense of word, taxes are force (later in the post I referred to them as such). I just always chafe when libertarians use that terminology because, again, I find it very melodramatic. I think it kind of stretches the meaning of the word “force.” People have the ability to vote down laws, get them repealed, etc. In this case they have the ability to avoid the tax altogether just by acting sensibly, and with some care toward the world. The same can’t be said of “true force,” i.e. mugging or rape.

  3. vmarks
    ·

    When you employ a tax as a punitive measure with the intent to change behavior, you are attempting to force the behavior change. This is true of all sin taxes, and the trend is to raise the tax over time.

    If you want to use a carrot-based system rather than stick-based, you might be tempted to say “Just require stores to use an incentive program.”

    I’m not tempted to say that at all. That’s a strawman you’ve set up to knock down. The point is that requiring and taxation are both clumsy means of bullying, and inserting government as a third party in the transaction and relationship between customer and shopkeep is an undesirable and unnecessary intrusion.

    You said in a tweet that the carrot has to be enforced. I disagree, it doesn’t have to be regulated or required – the customers do that well enough by insisting, complaining, or taking business elsewhere where a carrot is present.

    The customer doesn’t have to know that plastic bags are killing us, as you say. The customer just has to know what the immediate benefit to him is in order to be persuaded to use the canvas bag. This is why the information is irrelevant: The customer doesn’t need to go to school for environmental science or see the environmental impact first-hand or in news reports to know that the shop will offer him a discount for using the bags, especially if the immediate benefit is an apparent cost-savings.

    In fact, the proof that the information is irrelevant is that the information has been available for some time now (as you say) and has yet to have had the impact you desire in changing consumer choice.

    The shop doesn’t have to necessarily bear the cost of the canvas bags in any way differently from the way they currently bear the cost of the plastic bags- that is, it’s built into the cost of goods, and some goods are discounted as a part of sales or rewards programs.

    (The plastic bags aren’t free. The shop pays for them, and the shop doesn’t eat that cost. It’s paid for in the usual way, either by higher costs to customers, lower wages to employees, or both. In a publicly traded company, it can also be through lower returns on investments.)

    And then other shops would have to compete on this as well as other things they compete on: price, location, store layout, cleanliness, items stocked, and so on.

    I have yet to see a shop advertise discounts for using the canvas bags, and I have yet to see any offer them for free as a part of a rewards program. I’ve shopped Whole Foods, EarthFare, Trader Joe’s, and the Fresh Market. If any of those do this, they don’t make any effort to tell customers.

    Incidentally, both WalMart and Target now sell branded canvas bags as well. So, perhaps the availability and placement is intended to slowly raise awareness.

    Note that it is not my intention in this comment to solve the whole problem – only to show that taxation isn’t the first, last, best, and only solution to this problem. I posit the rewards program only because it occurred to me first and I lazily haven’t thought through any additional alternatives.

    You said that there really wasn’t any choice for consumers. (Forgive me if this is a bad paraphrase. I think you really wrote “What other choice is there?”)

    People make choices that are inscrutable by others. For those of us who are price conscious, shopping at a place that charges more but has a cleaner, nicer store layout makes little sense. For those of us who prefer foods without artificial sweeteners, shopping at the very cheapest location makes no sense.

    (Tangentially related, but I want to put it in because it always makes me smile: In Tennessee, a Dollar General store was being constructed, and a local paper interviewed folks in the community about the opening. One young woman was quoted as saying “I’m so glad, now I won’t have to dress up to go to WalMart.”)

    That you have difficulty understanding why people haven’t chosen to adopt alternatives to plastic bags isn’t only a failure of people to make the decision you want, it’s also failure of understanding what their motivations are. When you understand what motivates decision-making, you can satisfy those motives without using words like “require” and “tax.”

    Taxes are never inexpensive. They have costs both direct and indirect, and once instituted, are rarely rescinded, only raised. One of those costs is financial freedom, and another is the offense to the principal of property rights. When you use words like require, there’s a cost to both personal liberty and the right to run your business in the manner you desire, where the most basic form of agreement is between a customer who values a good more than his money, and the shop who values the money more than the good.

    In DC (remember DC? It’s a story about DC. (Thanks, Arlo!)) the customers are venting their anger to the shopkeeps who have done nothing to deserve this other than follow the law written by folks who don’t have to face customers. The customers are unlikely to vent to the lawmakers, and the shopkeeps could, but probably aren’t well-represented and don’t wish to be seen as championing environmental harm either, depending on the spin of things.

    Yes, free markets are tainted by imperfect information, but so is every other alternative, so it’s a pointless criticism. Using the billyclub of regulation and taxation is more imperfect, because it never readjusts like the market can (and does) when faced with new motivations or new ways to satisfy existing motivations.

    Thanks for the opportunity to try and better express what I was saying through tweets. I may not have expressed it well at all, but it’s a lot more than I could have done in 140 chars.


  4. ·

    I’m not tempted to say that at all. That’s a strawman you’ve set up to knock down.

    My apologies. I really did read that as your intended meaning (for the reason below).

    This is why the information is irrelevant: The customer doesn’t need to go to school for environmental science or see the environmental impact first-hand or in news reports to know that the shop will offer him a discount for using the bags, especially if the immediate benefit is an apparent cost-savings.

    I think we’re talking in circles. My point here is that if you leave it up to the stores to voluntarily offer a discount for bringing your own bags, they won’t have an incentive to do so. To run a rewards program, a store has to be willing either to lose some money for the sake of the environment or to pass the expense on in the cost of the food (and do all of the associated paperwork/logistics). What is the store’s motivation to do this? A few progressive establishments will make that choice but they’ll be in the minority and we’ll be back where we started. My point is that to achieve the effectiveness we need to achieve, stores would have to be required to participate in the rewards/incentive program. Without that requirement we’re back where we started, i.e. nothing gets done. I don’t see how you can get around the need to place a requirement somewhere in the chain (nor do I share your disdain for requirements).

    I have yet to see a shop advertise discounts for using the canvas bags, and I have yet to see any offer them for free as a part of a rewards program. I’ve shopped Whole Foods, EarthFare, Trader Joe’s, and the Fresh Market. If any of those do this, they don’t make any effort to tell customers.

    Here in El Cerrito, the Trader Joe’s gives you a choice when you bring your own bags. You can either have 5 cents cash off your bill or you can have tickets which get put in a bin at the exit. The tickets are totalled up and cashed out to charity. El Cerrito Natural Grocery just does cash back. But these two examples are rare exceptions (as you point out). They do it because they’re politically motivated to by their caring customers (Berkeley area, you know). That’s an extreme exception. To get this working at the Safeways and Walmarts of the world, we need requirements.

    When you use words like require, there’s a cost to both personal liberty and the right to run your business in the manner you desire, where the most basic form of agreement is between a customer who values a good more than his money, and the shop who values the money more than the good.

    That’s a rarefied definition of commerce that ignores the need to protect the public good. Should we allow the sale of DDT and cyanide and lasers that can chop off heads? We need to control the total output of plastic bags for the same reason we need to regulate emissions – the free market won’t do it itself if left to its own devices.

    Thanks Arlo :)

  5. vmarks
    ·

    Addendum. I was in Target today picking up a prescription. The canvas bags are 0.99 USD and in fine print they give a 0.05 discount for their use. I do not know if that means 0.05 discount per canvas bag used.

    So, based on the number of times my wife shops at Target, it may break even for us – that’s 20 times…

  6. vmarks
    ·

    Yes, I do need to load up on the decap-lasers, now that you mention it…

    I think I’ll go to Target later and see if they have any – because they haven’t needed any authoritarian requirements placed on them to offer the 0.05 discount (hoping per canvas bag, and not per bill) nationwide.

    Apparently, the instance of a nationwide retailer doing it proves the free market can.

    Remains to be seen if it has traction or staying power. Personally, they should have made the sign bigger telling me about the discount, I could have bothered a long time ago.

    I’ll check at WalMart the next time I go (that’s right, I go. I know it offends some folks, but there’s no denying they’re a large retailer for price-conscious folks.)

  7. vmarks
    ·

    New poll option requests:
    (1) it won’t be effective, even if some taxes are sensible
    (2) it won’t be effective
    (3) no taxes are sensible


  8. ·

    I really can’t imagine a more regressive tax. It primarily affects poorer people buying unprepared food and it has relatively high compliance costs for small business owners who now have to track bag fees.


  9. ·

    Great to hear that Target is doing this. I still want some guarantee that the policy is permanent though. Regulations give us that; the market does not.

    New poll options added.

    PJ – Why does the tax affect poorer shoppers more than other groups?

  10. vmarks
    ·

    It seems to me that the best guarantee that it’s permanent is to take advantage of it. Popular programs are the ones that stick. Unpopular things don’t. That’s the beauty of the market versus authoritarian dictates – the market can respond and change quickly.

    Does it always work that way? Heck no. But regulation is far worse and less responsive.


  11. ·

    Because $.05 per bag is an inconsequential sum to a lawyer living in Georgetown who will most likely just pay the fee for the added convenience. The only people who are likely to change their behavior are people who are poorer by comparison.

    Another thing to consider is how reasonable this is in general. Why should some car-less vegan living in Adams Morgan have to pay a $.05 fee for each plastic grocery bag when he already has a smaller ecological footprint than 99.9% of Americans?


  12. ·

    It seems to me that the best guarantee that it’s permanent is to take advantage of it.

    IMO, you’re placing way too much trust in the market and in the wisdom of consumers to do the right thing. Thanks to the free market we have factory farms, very little renewable energy infrastructure, a fast food culture and mass obesity problem, etc. etc. Our fundamental difference is that you seem to trust that the free market will take care of what needs taking care of; I have almost zero faith in its ability to do so.

    @PJ: Everyone can avoid the tax by bringing their own bags. And for those who don’t, or who forget from time to time, we’re talking 30 cents for a 6-bag shopping trip – a virtually inconsequential difference even to poorer shoppers.


  13. ·

    Taxes are inherently bad for the same reason that spanking is inherently bad. As a way of changing behavior, they are far from optimal techniques. Don’t believe me? Read “Don’t shoot the dog”, which talks about training mammals.

    A tax that you have the avoid by changing your behavior is … obviously not avoidable … because you had to change your behavior. Thus you suffer the consequence of the tax’s existence even though you don’t pay the tax.

    And yes, I’m sure that you don’t LIKE that taxes are enforced by people with guns. Maybe if you don’t like people with guns threatening peaceful people who refuse to cough up bucks (or change their behavior), then maybe … just maybe you’re more libertarian that you think?

    All of that said, a pigovian tax may be the best way to reduce the number of discarded plastic bags flying around, polluting innocent people’s property. That doesn’t mean we should enjoy taxing people … just as we shouldn’t enjoy spanking a child, or shooting a suspect, or fighting a war.


  14. ·

    I don’t understand why you think faith in free markets is necessary. It’s clear that they deliver the goods, and the bads, too. What alternative do you propose which gives more goods than bads? Not a fantasy solution for which you ignore the bads and the unintendeds, but a real solution which has proven to work for centuries? Non-market systems have failed spectacularly in the last century, so you’re starting off with the handicap of history. But go ahead, if you think that voters are wiser than consumers (even tho they’re the SAME PEOPLE), propose an alternative to peaceful trading between people. Don’t forget to include the cost of forcing them to comply with your system — people are not chess pieces to be moved around at your whim.


  15. ·

    A tax that you have the avoid by changing your behavior is … obviously not avoidable … because you had to change your behavior. Thus you suffer the consequence of the tax’s existence even though you don’t pay the tax.

    “The consequence” of avoiding the tax is that you “have to” bring your own bag? That seems like a rather inverted way of looking at things. Every person benefits and overall happiness increases when we aren’t swimming in our own effluents. When you give a child a time-out to teach them not to cross the street without looking, you are increasing their health and everyone’s happiness. The discipline works and you don’t have to discipline them next time because they will have learned. Are you suggesting that you use all carrot, no stick whilst bringing up your own children? Or use the same metaphor for adults who run red lights. The incentive for them not to do so is the threat of death to themselves and others. The carrot works for most of us. For those who just don’t care, we still have jail (stick).

    And yes, I’m sure that you don’t LIKE that taxes are enforced by people with guns.

    On the contrary – I’m very very glad that they are. Otherwise people who don’t agree with them would simply not pay them, and our social infrastructure would crumble. Of course I would prefer if everyone would pay them without threat of punishment, but that’s not how people are. Unfortunately, the reality is that populations are very much like small children. I would personally like to have more of my taxes go to schools (and for the U.S. to pay for college educations and universal health care) than to the military, but even though I don’t like it, I’m glad they force me to pay it. Because if they didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to count on funding for roads, libraries, Medicare, etc. I value the fact that we’re forced to pay taxes more than I value the prospect of being able to personally decide what programs should be funded with them. Sure, I can imagine a utopia where everyone agrees with me and no force would be required. But so can everyone else. We’ll never all agree, but we do all need to be on the same page with things like public health and safety.

    No one enjoys paying taxes or punishing children, but we all accept them as necessary. At least I hope we do.

    What alternative do you propose which gives more goods than bads? Not a fantasy solution for which you ignore the bads and the unintendeds, but a real solution which has proven to work for centuries?

    I’m not advocating marxism, but I do believe that free markets need to be heavily regulated, so the forces of greed don’t tear us apart (see last year’s meltdown of financial markets due to unchecked greed). So I believe more in free market socialism like in Scandinavia, etc. (where you get the best education, best health care, best public safety, and pay the most taxes). Remember that nations paying the most taxes also have the highest life satisfaction (happiness) indexes.

  16. Lee Eichelberger
    ·

    I don’t see what the big deal is. This is exactly what is done in Europe and everyone brings their own bags. It’s not called a tax though, you just buy a bag for that money. Don’t kid yourself though, this won’t stop that mound of garbage in the ocean. Just one drop in a big bucket.

  17. Lee Eichelberger
    ·

    Oh and my bag is made of hemp — HEMP, MAN! If we only all used hemp we’d SAVE THE PLANET… etc… (hehe)


  18. ·

    Another thought re: Hoping that stores will establish a volunteer bag program (bring own bag, get a discount): Even if every store did this, it would still allow people to opt for a plastic bag, or to be lazy and just pay the 5 cents rather than have to think about it. In other words you’re only going to get partial buy-in on the program and the problem remains only partially solved.

  19. Melody
    ·

    Wow, some strong opinions on this subject. I think anything we can do to live greener or more naturally is bound to have some positive impact. At least this will create some more awareness, for those who are frugal anyways!

  20. Lynn
    ·

    The Shopper’s Food Warehouse on New Hampshire Ave. in Takoma Park, MD gives a 5 cent discount for every bag reused (canvas, plastic, paper, etc.).
    Also, the Takoma Park Silver Spring Co-op hands out chips (worth 5 cents) for every bag reused. These chips can then be dropped into collection jars representing various charities; the Co-op does a periodic tally and makes a donation representing the total.


  21. ·

    Lots of stores offer incentives like this. The open question is whether it’s effective. Given the incentive, do customers go for it? Stand watching the line at Target or any of these stores for 10 minutes and count what percentage of people take them up on the incentive. The number is very low, except at health food stores, where you have shoppers who actually give a damn.

    The bigger question in my mind is “Should consumers even be allowed to make choices that harm all of us (not just themselves)?” Granted our whole modern civilization is based on choices that have harmful side effects – we can’t just make it all go away. But when alternatives are easy and cheap, like BYO bags, we should at least require consumers to make them.


  22. ·

    If it was that easy and cheap, people would already be doing it.

    I’m actually in sympathy with you desire to stop plastic bag pollution. I’m even thinking that imposing a tax is acceptable. Call it “sharing the cost of cleaning up bags that escape the disposal system”. What grates on me, though, is your question which I rephrase as “Should other people be allowed to make choices that I don’t like?” A better question to ask would be “Should I be allowed to make choices that other people don’t like?” Or “Should a minority be allowed to do something that a majority don’t like?” Small steps to a radically worse world, Scot. Small steps.

    Yes, just as you say, many things have harmful side effects. Most of them are the trade-off for YOU to have freedom from other people. They’re the price you pay for everyone else tolerating your peculiarities.


  23. ·

    What grates on me, though, is your question which I rephrase as “Should other people be allowed to make choices that I don’t like?”

    Russ – It’s not clear to me why you feel the need to rephrase the question like that. There are questions of opinion and there are questions of fact. It’s not my opinion that the environment can’t tolerate uncheked plastic bag use, it’s fact. I think we can all agree on the fact (opinion is how we choose to deal with those facts). If you want to talk about gay marriage, which is a choice that has no effect on others, then sure it’s a question of “choices I like / don’t like” — but I don’t see how that applies here. We’re not talking about having freedom from other people. We’re talking about freedom from the effects of other people’s choices.

    In separate news:

    China leapfrogs enviromental policy of other countries by banning plastic bags outright. The country expects to save 37 million barrels of oil annually (on top of the immense environmental benefit).

  24. benvh
    ·

    Here in Belgium practically all supermarkets charge 10 cents for a plastic bag – with the consequence that most shoppers bring their own recyclable bags. No tax involved but really effective.


  25. ·

    “It’s not my opinion that the environment can’t tolerate uncheked plastic bag use, it’s fact.”

    No, it’s opinion. Do you know what percentage of our oil consumption goes to making plastic bags? In the U.S., it’s about 1.5%.

    Do you know how many gallons of oil are used in the making of the roughly 350 disposable bags that it’s estimated the typical American takes home each year? About 1.5 gallons. That won’t even heat your house for one cold night. That could be saved with one trip on metro instead of a car. Doesn’t sound like so much now, does it?

    “[China] expects to save 37 million barrels of oil annually (on top of the immense environmental benefit).”

    Why do you think 37 million barrels of oil in a year is an “immense” environmental benefit?” China uses 3 billion barrels of oil every year. Further, paper bags, which will likely replace them, take up far more space in landfills than plastic bags, and take vastly greater amounts of energy to produce.

    This is the problem with this tax. Everyone who THINKS they are an environmentalist favors it because it “feels good.” The reality is different.

    In DC, the tax was designed by a special interest group who wants to clean up The Anacostia River. I support their goal fully. But the architects of the tax know full well that there are few, if any, environmental benefits in the big picture to this sort of tax. But it’s a way for them to get some money while making people feel good about an action that has very little impact. I would much rather we had just figured out how much it would cost to clean up the river and appropriated it – at least that way, the money would be guaranteed, and all residents of DC would pay for it equally.


  26. ·

    Jamie – Most of your comment is focused on the oil costs of producing plastic bags. While that’s a factor, and I certainly don’t think it’s acceptable that 1.5% of our oil consumption goes to plastic bags, my concern is really focused on the great plastic patch in the pacific and on landfills, much more than on oil consumption. When I talk about our environment not being able to withstand much more of this, that’s what I’m referring to.

  27. don
    ·

    I have a few questions about the trash soup floating in the Pacific. Who is dumping it? I don’t think the protocol for disposing of trash in the U.S. is to dump it in the ocean. So I will assume the answer to my question is, “other countries.”

    That being the case, my next question is, what will it accomplish if we in the U.S. were to drastically reduce or even eliminate our plastic grocery bags? Would it be nothing more than a symbolic and perhaps exemplary effort? Would such a gesture have any real meaning throughout the rest of the nations who regularly dump their trash into the Pacific?

    Ultimately if we’re not the people dumping all the bags into the ocean, I find it hard to make a case that taxing our plastic bags out of existence will fix the problem.


  28. ·

    Don – Good question. Some of it comes from dumping, but according to the linked article:

    Most of this trash doesn’t come from seafaring vessels dumping junk — 80 percent of ocean trash originates on land . The rest comes from private and commercial ships, fishing equipment, oil platforms and spilled shipping containers (the contents of which frequently wash up on faraway shores years later).

    I suspect you’re right that most of it comes from other countries, and that some of it comes from plain old dumping. In any case, the right thing to do is the right thing to do. Some of it comes from us, plastic bags are bad for the environment, and they should be stopped in one way or another. We can lead by example (though in this case it looks like China has taken that bull by the horns).

  29. Kuniko Yasuda
    ·

    I came to DC last november, 2009. I am extremely happy that DC has “no plastic bag” law. I have been telling people about “no plastic bad policy” for a long time all over the world where ever I have lived. I think it is a brave thing to do because most of the time, people go against this kind of idea. I hope someday “no plastic bag” policy would happen in Japan too. I perfectly understand that some people feel “tax=government authority” but a matter of fact, those are the nones who need discipline. Without disciplining them there would be no tomorrow to live.

  30. Michael Pelletier
    ·

    I wonder how many forests have not been clear-cut over the years thanks to plastic bags displacing the use of paper bags at grocery stores? I read that 14 million trees were cut down in 1999 to produce just that year’s supply of paper grocery bags. How much energy has been saved over the years by plastic bags needing a quarter of the energy to produce that paper bags require?

    While you’re bashing plastic bags, please take a moment to give them some credit for stopping a much worse environmental assault that had been going on for decades in grocery stores.

    China has banned plastic bags, the update says – are they going to go back to paper bags?


  31. ·

    Michael – The goal of course is to use neither, and switch to re-usable canvas bags. You’re right that plastic bags take less energy to produce, but you’re dealing with petroleum, and all of the infrastructure behind that.

    Also keep in mind that we don’t clear-cut to make paper – we farm it, re-planting as much as we harvest.

    You do have to pay the piper somehow – nothing is free or harm-free. But you have to carefully measure what kind of harm. And remember that it’s always way better to reduce or eliminate the need (i.e. to use canvas).


  32. ·

    Overall this tax and any other environmental tax is more than needed, it`s necessary. Plastic should be recycled, it`s more than harmful for the environment.


  33. ·

    Molded – I see you work with a plastics company. Are all of your parts made of recycled plastics?

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