Brookline Banned Plastic Bags, But Why Not Tax Them Instead?

A tax on disposable shopping bags reduces consumption without all that 'nanny-statism.'

“Do you ever feel like a plastic bag?” – Katy Perry, queen of similes. (Photo credit: Kate Ter Haar via Flickr)

Brookline’s Town Meeting voted to ban the use of plastic bags at large retailers Wednesday, just a day after they voted to ban styrofoam containers, and inevitably the town’s attempts at environmentalism are being met with competing claims of “nanny-statism.” That leaves us wondering why the town didn’t opt for an approach that would dramatically reduce the use of plastic bags and leave shoppers and businesses their freedom: a tax. In plenty of other cities and countries, policymakers have implemented tiny fees for the use of all types of disposable grocery bags, giving people incentive to bring reusable bags to the store with them. Research finds that simply by adding a separate price to the bags, even if that price makes up a near negligible percentage of their total bill, people change how they shop.

Researchers at University College Dublin studying the effect of a 15 cent tax on plastic bags in Ireland wondered if it had become “the most popular tax in Europe.” The paper’s authors at University College Dublin note that despite the tiny fee, Irish people quickly switched to reusable bags. In fact, plastic bag use declined by 90 percent. The authors write, “There is now a very broad literature on the advantages of market-based instruments …  over command and control approaches.” Hear that, Brookline?

Washington, D.C. became one of the first U.S. cities to implement a plastic bag fee in 2010, when lawmakers decided to charge an even smaller 5 cents for disposable bags, 4 cents of which went to a fund dedicated to cleaning up the Anacostia River, and 1 cent of which went to the businesses charging the fee. The city has raised millions for cleanup and reported huge declines in plastic bag use. (If lawmakers were afraid to raise taxes, they could just mandate that stores charge the fee but keep all the money. The effect on shopper behavior would likely be the same.)

As someone who once grocery shopped regularly in D.C. after the fee was implemented, this writer can say anecdotally that a lot of people brought their own reusable bags to the market though it saved just a fraction of a dollar each time. Because people face a fee and not a ban, if they make a grocery run on the fly and don’t have time to run home to pick up bags, there’s still the option to use the store’s disposable ones. They just pay a few cents more and apologize to Mother Earth. (Okay, that last part is optional.) It’s a policy that offers flexibility by coercing rather than forcing good behavior. “Do you ever feel like a plastic bag,” songstress Katy Perry once asked in a different context. Why yes, Katy, we do, and we’d be happy to pay 5 cents for one.

Without incentives (but not onerous mandates) to avoid use of all disposable bags, Brookline’s new law strikes us as unlikely to lead to much more than the widespread use of disposable paper bags, which aren’t as harmful as non-biodegradable plastic, but also aren’t, as the bylaw’s proponents admit, particularly eco-friendly. The ban also applies only to large businesses, doing nothing to curb the behavior of those who shop at smaller stores. And it sets up the government as a big, bad rule enforcer. If a tax would achieve the same goal of reducing use of disposable bags while giving the town a little money to deal with cleanup, why antagonize people by taking the path of most resistance?

Update: The first version of this post noted that Brookline’s proponents admitted problems with the law. In fact, Clint Richmond, chief proponent of the bylaw, is quoted in a Wicked Local story we cited admitting problems with paper bags, not problems with the bylaw, so we’ve reflected that in the post and we apologize for the error.