Do Plastic Bag Fees Work?

New York City is considering implementing a $0.05 fee on plastic bags. This bit of legislation has the majority support by one vote, and could be signed on May 5th. Should they do it? You decide.

The Facts

Every year, less than 5% of the 100 billion discarded plastic bags are recycled in the US. These bags litter land and water, causing harm to marine life and our clean water supply.

Paper and plastic bag fees have been enacted in at least 160 municipalities, including cities such as Washington, DC (January 2010), Portland, ME (April 2015), and Boulder, CO (July 2013).

In Washington, D.C., the $0.05 obtained from the sale of each paper/plastic bag, is given to the Anacostia River Clean Up Fund. Since its implementation in January, over $10 million in revenue has been generated from Washington D.C.’s Bag Law. (I cannot help but point out this catch-22. The Clean Up Fund exists to rid the waterways of plastic bags that you purchase, but the plastic bags that you purchase funds the effort.)

In Portland and Boulder, funds are kept by the stores. Some of Boulder’s $0.10 fee is kept by the city to address the impact of disposable bags.

Does the Fee Work?

The answer to this questions is not a simple yes/no. For the most part, plastic/paper bag fees decrease the amount of single-use bags in the area (typically by 50-80%).

But because we still live in a consumerist culture, we are constantly buying. Revenue from Washington’s bag fee has increased each year, from $1.8 million in 2011 to $2.1 million in 2014, even though surveys indicate using 60% fewer bags. This statistic is plausible (due to population increase of 55,000 in five years and more businesses).

D.C.’s number one goal of implementing the tax was to get un-captured trash out of the environment and waterways. In this regard, D.C.’s program is very successful.

However, the statistics also show that bag fees do not decrease or eliminate single-use bags further down the road. In other words, it seems like a one-time solution. (Which is okay, if the fee still meets the municipality’s goals.)

But even if these fees work, there seems to be one major consequence.

As a way to dull the effect of the tax, stores typically give away thousands of cheap reusable bags. And many companies and stores continue to give reusable bags out as promotional material. I too am guilty of collecting these bags.

Manufacturing reusable bags is incredibly energy intensive, and most must be used over 100 times before they’re better for the environment than single-use bags. Unfortunately, cheap reusable bags are being sold everywhere now, and the bags I’m talking about cannot stand 10 heavy uses, let alone 100.

The plastic bag fee/ban may amplify this reusable bag consumption issue. For example, Austin, TX’s ban on plastic bags in 2013 actually caused more harm than good by increasing the amount of reusable plastic bags in the landfill. This trend is likely happening all over the country.

As long as your reusable bags are durable, they are the most sustainable option. You can purchase your durable reusable bags from trusted sources that use quality material, and stop collecting flimsy free bags.

Who knows what’ll happen in NYC if the bag fee is implemented? Perhaps NYC will fare similarly to D.C. and have a seemingly effective program or perhaps the city will be more like Austin and fail.




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