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We ought to bag the plastic bag tax

Susan Lee

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

Kai Ryssdal: In San Francisco this week, plans are afoot among city officials to expand their ban on plastic shopping bags. Three years ago the city outlawed plastic bags in grocery stores and chain drug stores. The talk now is of extending it to all businesses there. Other cities have tried to control what has been called the "urban tumbleweed" by charging for bags at the checkout aisle.

Commentator Susan Lee says that's not the way to go either.


Susan Lee: I live in New York City, which happens to be the plastic-bag center of the universe. According to one estimate, New Yorkers use over 3 billion bags a year.

Most of these bags are reused as liners for garbage buckets or as pooper-scoopers. But a lot of them just blow around -- and get caught in trees where they hang forever.

Well, a total ban seems a bit extreme. So I was interested when Washington D.C. started taxing bags this year. All grocery and convenience stores now charge five cents per bag -- paper or plastic. Lots of people don't want to pay, so stores use about half as many bags as they did before the tax.

Hoo-Ha, I thought. A bag tax produces a trifecta of good things -- less repulsive litter, less environmental damage and less waste in general.

However, it turns out that I was wrong.

Yes, fewer bags do cut down on repulsive litter. But only on the margin. A huge majority of street litter consists of paper and cigarette butts.

As for the environment -- plastic bags may be better than the alternative. Certainly they're better than paper bags. And those durable, poly-bags require more energy to produce. And unlike flimsy plastic bags, they aren't recyclable.

Same goes for waste. Beyond lining wastebaskets or picking up after pets, plastic bags are deployed as lunch boxes or totes for ancient tennis shoes.

Clearly, the need for some sort of bag won't disappear. Instead, other less energy-efficient bags will be purchased.

According to the Tax Foundation, at least 15 states have bag-tax laws in the pipeline.

It makes me very sad to say this, but we probably ought to bag the bag tax.

Ryssdal: Susan Lee is an economist living, as she said, in New York City. Take a second, no matter where you are, and send us your thoughts.

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Ms. Lee's article is one of the most woefully ignorant I've read in a long time. Happily, most of the commenters here have a much firmer grasp on the reality of single-use plastics.

Susan Lee does not seem to understand why it's bad to have plastic bags littering the environment. While both plastic and paper litter is "repulsive", at least paper litter is biodegradable for the most part. Plastic litter is not.

As for the resuse of these bags, I disagree that reusing them as trashcan liners, lunch bags, or animal waste containers justifies a need for them. I hear this argument against the plastic bag tax all the time. Our family usually takes reusable bags to the grocery store, and we still manage to accumulate plastic bags faster than we can use them for other things. I imagine that plastic bags that are used to tote lunches and old tennis shoes end up in the recycling bin (or let's face it, the trash) once you're done using them. Reusable bags are the way to go.

-Biodegradable garbage bags and poop scooping bags are available today, they're not free, but what price are we willing to put on our environment. Susan lee's has put a much lower value on the environment then I, and her commentary disgusted me
-NY Bag Capital?
i think the real plastic bag capitals are the third world cities, that don't have public works to haul away trash much less recycling, that now have plastic perimeters.
-Reusing non biodegradable plastic shopping bags for secondary use doesn't stop them from existing, whether buried forever in the ground, as giant islands in the pacific ocean, or through out our landscapes and waterways

I don't know where Ms. Lee shops, but her experience with plastic bags is the opposite of my own. An individual plastic bag may cost less in energy to produce than paper, but it takes 5 - 8 times as many plastic bags as paper to carry the same amount of groceries. The plastic bags are flimsy, arriving home torn, punctured, and virtually useless - they end up as trash in the heavier plastic bags I had to buy in order to replace the paper grocery bags that used to line my wastebaskets. Ms. Lee also remarks that plastic grocery bags can be recycled. On what planet? If you use them to line your garbage cans, they go out to the municipal landfill. If you put them in your recycling bin, the recycler leaves your bin behind - they don't want those plastic grocery bags any more than I do.

Several of the previous comments echo my own beliefs and experiences - it is clear that reusable bags can be a good and energy conserving alternative. As someone who lives in DC, I can tell you that the bag tax is obviously a positive. It does reduce single use bag consumption, though it certainly does not eliminate it. I usually bring my own reusable bags shopping, but if I forget, I simply pay the 5 cent fee and get a new trash bag. Or I just try to juggle the items in my arms! The tax goes to river restoration efforts and I value those trash can liners all the more because I "paid" for them.

Paper bags are made from trees, not petroleum. And, more importantly, trees are Renewable!!! And, harvesting trees provies forest landowners with a source of income to pay their property taxes...in some cases allowing them to keep their land instead of selling it to a developer. Enough of the ignorant bias against paper products.

When we lived in Finland in 1988 , they already had hd tv's and already required that you bring your own bags or pay for them, also you had to bag your own, when buying groceries. You were expected to bring back all bottles of beer or soda for exchange for new ones. Finland would be a good model for America's "Green" ideas.

With regard to Susan Lee's comment: "As for the environment -- plastic bags may be better than the alternative. Certainly they're better than paper bags." Um, no they aren't. Plastic bags take longer to decompose within a landfill. I'm confused as to why someone that appeared to be knowledgeable on the topic wouldn't know that. I always ask for paper and refuse to use paper bags because of that.

I agree. We use plastic and paper bags as trash can liners. If we didn't use them, we would probably have to buy plastic liners for our trash. Yes, we do have a compost heap; but, I think we still need our liners. Makes me wonder it those large companies that makes bags like Hefty, aren't behind these bans...

"plastic bags may be better than the alternative. Certainly they're better than paper bags. And those durable, poly-bags require more energy to produce. And unlike flimsy plastic bags, they aren't recyclable." As many above have implied, Ms. Lee needs to show her work when making comments such as these. The studies are indeed out there -- it took me all of three minutes online to dig up one done for Carrefour to compare the life cycles of three types of disposable shopping bags and one reusable made from synthetics. To summarize, paper and biodegradable plastic do better than disposable plastic in some categories, but worse in others [water use and some kinds of pollution]. Reusable bags score better than all disposables in all seven impacts studied when used three or more times. As for the creative re-use of plastic bags, bravo -- but imagine how ingenious and conservative you'd be when reusing bags you bought with your own money...

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