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June 10, 2009

Bad Logic Plagues Bag Fee Op Ed

Seattle Times 7.30.2008

"The July 8 public hearing on Seattle's proposed 20-cent tax on disposable grocery bags and a ban on polystyrene foam food containers felt like the Fremont Street Fair.  People celebrated.  There were speeches on the evils of plastic, singing grannies waving reusable bags and evil monsters parading about the hearing room.  In such an atmosphere, it was difficult for the council and mayor to do anything other than say yes to the proposals.  But there were good reasons to say no...." Read the full article here.

Our Take: The bag fee is a proven, market-based solution to excessive plastic bag consumption. Here's our take on some of author Peter Nickerson’s misguided (but unfortunately not uncommon) arguments:

  • “We don’t have a litter problem” - To begin, a 5-mile walk is hardly a scientific study of a major metropolitan area, and statistics on plastic bag litter suggest otherwise.  It takes a single plastic bag more than 1,000 years to degrade, so even if you currently don’t see a litter problem, it doesn’t mean you don’t have one – or won’t in the future.
  • “these currently free bags…” - As an economics teacher, surely Mr. Nickerson has taught “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”  There’s no such thing as a “free plastic bag” either.   The annual cost to U.S. retailers alone is $4 billion, passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices.  And production of bags requires use of valuable natural resources we’re accustomed to paying a premium for.
  • “…we will buy reusable bags, probably by the millions.”Cheap reusables do create a new version of the same old problem – an issue that’s blown out of control since flimsy polypropylene bags flooded the market.  However, there are other plenty of other win-win options out there, like high-quality reusables made from durable, washable materials.
  • “…consumption of plastic bag liners doubled as a result of the tax” - There are definitely some uses for plastic bags, but whether you pay for them at the register or by the box, you’ll only buy as many as you need and not much more. “Doubled” sounds huge, but with free-of-charge plastic bags being handed out profusely, the original number of liners purchased was probably negligible.   It’s a bad idea to try to eliminate a necessity (a solid argument against plastic bag bans), but it’s sensible to charge for the consumption of a resource that’s not free to produce.
  • “We should strongly consider what NYC did this spring: promote recycling” - Recycling is definitely a good practice, but (at the high end) only about 3 percent of plastic bags are recycled – which pales in comparison to the >90% reduction in consumption spurred by Ireland’s PlasTax.  Plus, the prohibitive cost of processing and recycling plastic bags leads to all sorts unintended, negative consequences.

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