Plastic Bag Fees Stalling for Economics or Politics?

The New York Times reports that various plastic bag-reduction initiatives around the country are stalling – or flatlining – due to economics. The plans in the works in places like Seattle, San Francisco and New York have included charges of 5 to 20 cents per plastic bag – and in some cases, paper bags – at, for example, grocery stores.

The intent is – was – to foster a reusable bag culture and wean consumers off their plastic bag dependency. Now, critics are saying the rough economic road we’re on these days is cause enough to halt progress of those initiatives – and related legislative proposals.


Don’t confuse me for someone who is financially above the morass here, but if I need, say, five plastic bags per weekly grocery shopping trip and had to pay a nickel for those bags, it’s easy to figure out that buying one of those one-dollar reusables at the checkout counter will quickly earn back its investment.

And I feel certain there’s no one who can’t adjust their grocery list to accommodate the investment. There are countless ways to spend less on a shopping trip. Put the candy bar back and you get a reusable bag that will last and last and last. Put down that six-pack of soda or beer and you have a fistful of reusable bags that will last and last and last and last.

Sure, plenty of people don’t care enough to make those simple, one-time “sacrifices.” But that’s why legislations across the country ever started considering fees and bans on the disposable bags.

What’s halting progress – reducing waste, pollution and, in the case of Connecticut, which proposes $10 million a year from this type of initiative going into the bank account for the Environmental Protection Department – is not the actual impossibility of finances, it’s the politics related to the perception of it.

Source: New York Times
Photo: Paul Keller, Attribution License

  1. Jared

    Hey, I’m liking your blog! I have long agreed that taking sensible steps to reduce/reuse/recycle are some small things to reduce our impact on the earth, but your site is really cool in that it links that simple idea to much larger ideas (like not having plastic bags in stores, like your latest article). I might use some more stuff for my humor blog about saving another valuable resource- money! I already included the human-powered washing machine from your old blog, which was a great feat of engineering (as well as a little humorous). Good luck out there!

  2. singin4theearth

    Actually, semms it would be even better to just ban them completely and get everyone bringing their own reusables. If we know there won’t be any throw away plastics or paper available at the store, we’ll get in the habit quicker, no?

  3. Lori

    Great Post! Thanks for calling a spade a spade on this one. There are people who won’t buy a $2 reusable bag but can still spend $4 a day for coffee at Starbucks. When someone tells me they can’t “afford” to be green I know what they really mean is that they are unwilling to spend the money, not unable. We live in the richest country on the planet. Even the poorest among us can afford a buck for a bag.

  4. Zach Dwiel

    The thing is, we are all already paying for it, its just factored into the cost of the food as an operating expense for the grocer. This law would not increase our costs, it would decrease them. It would make it so that people who decided to save money by using reusable bags wouldn’t also pay for everyone else’s plastic bags in their increased grocery costs.

    It gets rid of the current tragedy of the commons. As it stands, using free plastic bags is cheaper for the individual, but more expensive for the group where as reusable bags are more expensive for the individual and cheaper for the group. With this law passed, individuals could do what is cheapest for the group without spending more themselves.

  5. Lou

    I am lost here…Lori says I have to pay to be green no matter what but I recycle my grocery sacks for free…if it starts with bags what next? We all just paid shy of 1 billion ..err…trillion for a stimulus package that my kids are now going to pay for. Why increase our burdens even more?

    I am concerned that with all of the challenges in the economy we are be distracted by intiatives like this…

    The is sot even a mention here that if a tax is not passed we can still do something like recycling to improve, it feel like more money is the only solution?

  6. Concetta

    Well, I think the evidence is right in the article that one of the mayors said that he hadn’t had any complaints about the fee.

    These people might be taking “concern” for the economy into the absurd. Wasn’t there just a study that said people were continuing to pay the premiums for green products?

    @Lou – the recycling opportunity has been there for years and it hasn’t motivated people to do it. People need to be motivated by money to do anything about this. Look at Aldi for an example. The reusable bags sell out frequently b/c people will pick them up over paying 5c each time they come in for a bag.

    @singin4theearth I totally agree! I would get rid of them altogether. Look at countries that have done it already like in Europe and there’s not been damage to business.

    Good article, Adam!

  7. KenHolmes

    The economic concern isn’t the biggest problem here. The absurd notion that plastic bags are somehow killing the planet has gained such momentum that people accept it as fact without doing any research. The truth is that disposable plastic bags have extremely low environmental impact when compared to all other alternatives. Most of the facts and figures quoted around the web are coming from a handful of places, all of which are in business to sell reusable bags – not exactly unbiased.

    RECYCLING – the best incentive to get people to recycle is money. I live in Seattle where we have had an excellent recycling program for over 20 years. Works like this: you pay to have garbage hauled off based on the size of your garbage can. Recycling is picked up for free. The more waste you divert into your recycling, the lower your garbage bill.

    Also, most people (studies show about 90%) reuse their grocery bags, either at the store, or for other things like trash can liners, picking up after pets, storing dirty laundry when traveling… etc. Eliminate the “free” grocery bags at stores, and people will revert to buying more packaged bags. This is exactly what happened in Ireland when they started taxing bags.

    Get some facts:

  8. Adam Williams

    Thanks for all comments.

    Ken, it seems tough to attribute bias to other viewpoints when you are touting plastic bag-saving Web sites for facts, and seem to be employed by a company that manufacturers plastic bags.

    Thanks for reminding us all that we need not take information and charge on without making sure it’s correct, but your counter points are likewise suspect, in this case.

    You neglect the pollution caused by the creation and shipping of plastic bags, or the use of forests to manufacture paper bags, which are then shipped around the country or further.

    Like in the examples you mention, my household certainly reuses plastic bags for trash and dog waste collection, etc., but those actions are more about making the best of a less-than-good situation. If I did not ever bring another plastic bag into the house, I am certain my trash would still be collected.

    But I like that line of your thinking: reuse. And that is why I believe in using reusable bags. A handful of bags will last for countless grocery shopping trips accumulated during years of living.

    And as for comparing the damage caused by plastic bags versus the many other earth-damaging activities out there? You’re probably right. Plastic bags play a relatively minor role, I suspect, but of all things that are harming the environment, improving my lifestyle by halting my use of plastic bags is incredibly easy, affordable and, unlike many other larger things, it is doable.

    I’m not a president, so I don’t get to start or end wars. I can’t cure cancer or end poverty. But I can still care to do what is right and sensible. Reusing a cloth bag rather than participating in a wasteful, careless society is something we can all do.

    The act of switching from plastic bags to cloth ones may not save the world in itself, but it’s a very easy move we all can make. And that makes all of us capable of being just a bit of a planet-saver in a world so large and complicated that very few other decisions we make matter.

  9. Logan Dickerson

    While I think the plastic bag industry can argue successfully that their product is no more harmful to the environment than paper bags, it is very hard for them to make any credible argument that their product is preferred to reusable bags. While they have an economic incentive to try to make that argument, most informed people will see it as merely a desperate way to try to hang onto their market share.

    I agree with comments above that there are much larger issues that we face from an environmental and sustainability front than plastic bags, but that does not mean it is an issue that we should brush aside. Addressing the disposable bag issue provides a unique opportunity to educate the masses about the negative impacts that many day-to-day decisions can have on the environment (everyone shops for groceries right?). At the end of the day, we are at a critical point in our earth’s history where we are now living beyond the globe’s carrying capacity. As a result, recycling is not the solution that will get us out of the environmental and sustainability issues that we face. We must address our consumption levels, and reusable bags offer a great way to educate all consumers about the little things they can do to help on that front.

    My partner and I have co-founded a new incentive based program aimed at driving higher usage of reusable bags in the retail industry. ReUseIt, LLC rewards consumers with reward points every time they shop at participating retailers with reusable bags. Those reward points can then be used to redeem rewards from hundreds of different companies. By creating a positive incentive for consumers to switch to reusable bags, we believe that we can have a dramatic impact on the consumption of disposable bags.

    To find out more about our program, you can visit our website at http://www.reuseitbags.net. If you have questions about our program or have a business that is interested in participating in our program, feel free to fill out the Contact Us page on our website. We look forward to hearing from you.

  10. treythefarmer

    I find it sad that we are all so set in our security that any attempt at change is seen as a personal attack on the people of that industry. Times move forward and we need lots of people to do all the new jobs. The demand for solar installers is staggering. We need to help shift the coal miners and people of that industry and other outdated, harmful industries into jobs and skills that will move us forward.
    It is easy to see why they and Ken are so defensive. They are just trying to provide for their families and take pride in their work as most people do. The dialogue needs to be much more civil then it generally is. If we are going to have a total shift in our economy to more sustainable means we need to all work together.
    That said, we need to ban those bags, straight up, everywhere. They are completely unnecessary and any argument that they aren’t causing any problems is just not correct. Look at our trees that are filled with them. However this ban needs to be coupled with retraining programs for people in the industry. We can’t hang our neighbors out to dry.
    I have friends in Monsanto and Goldman Sachs who work hard and believe in what they do and that they are helping. They are bombarded with nationalistic propaganda (their companies being the nations) and spend most of their day with other people receiving the same. Why shouldn’t they believe it if that is all they know? Im sure that the miners in Appalachia hate the Cohen brothers for their ‘lies and attacks’ on their already poor areas.

  11. MornΓ©

    We truly live in a society that gives little thought where things come from and what effects everything we do has on the world around us. I’m a South African. In the early 1990’s we jokingly referred to the plastic bag as our national flower; due to littering nearly every tree in both urban, rural and natural settings were draped in these man made floral decorations. It took one man to change our landscape. The then minister of Environmental Affairs, Valli Moosa, introduced the controversial legislation that forced consumers to pay a set amount for all plastic bags. Retailers were no longer allowed to give these bags away free with purchases. The regulation thickness of these bags were increased to make them more durable. Instantly a price tag was placed on rubbish. Discarding a plastic bag was now very much like discarding money. A crazy idea and it worked! We do have the option of buying reusable cloth bags, but most people get along nicely by just reusing the more durable plastic bags. It was a small shift in lifestyle with a very noticeable change in the environment.

    If it can be done in Africa, why not in America? People will always be wasteful until it hits them where it hurts. In the pocket. Stop dragging your feet! Make the change now.

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