Paper or Plastic? NEITHER in San Jose come 2011.

September 24, 2009

Seattle had a 20 cent tax (yes, government-imposed charges on plastic bags are taxes, not fees) on plastic bags until the voters repealed it. Ireland and Toronto were the first to have plastic bag taxes. San Francisco considered it but opted for a ban at large grocery stores only instead; California floated the idea of a 25-cent bag tax but quickly nixed it. The District of Columbia followed up with a 5-cent plastic bag tax that takes effect in January 2010, and now San Jose, California has voted to ban both plastic and paper bags beginning January 2011.

Why plastic bags? Proponents are a “baptist-bootlegger” coalition (so named for the coalition supporting prohibition of alcohol decades ago, religious activists and black market liquor providers who knew a ban would drive up the price). Here, the coalition is environmentalists who say the tax will reduce both the industrial processes that produce plastic bags and the littering from them, and large grocery retailers that benefit from the sale “branded” reusable bags and save the cost of “free” bags. Throwing paper bags into the mix only enhances such sales, even though the environmental arguments get a bit more dubious.

As our former economist Andrew Chamberlain noted, the environmental costs of plastic bags must be compared with the costs of reusable bags:

Unfortunately, it’s unclear that the plastic bag tax led to any net environmental gains. For one, plastic bag production is highly energy efficient, so it’s not obvious that the reduction in littering outweighs the boost in carbon-based pollution required to manufacture and ship the heavier and more energy-intensive paper and re-usable carriers that replaced them.

Not to mention the deadweight social loss from the tax itself. Plus the cost of complying with it.

Speaking for myself, I like getting bags when I buy a bunch of small items somewhere or I can’t mix moisture-covered water bottles with documents in my backpack. (I often decline the bag if I’m going a short distance with one item or so.) I reuse plastic bags too. But some people view them as a “scourge” causing “terrible destruction to the planet” with apparently no benefits. Such people at least are consistent for demanding a ban instead of a mere tax of a few nickels. But perhaps the good citizens of Silicon Valley will soon be visiting plastic bag speakeasies. I certainly hope the San Jose cops won’t tackle me on the street next time I visit as I carry a bag of water bottles.

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