Wednesday, January 6, 2010

In other news regarding fits of vexation and dyspepsia

D.C. has now enacted a tax requiring stores to charge customers five cents for every plastic bag they use. I was a sucker and paid the odious five cents today for the first time for the plastic bag in which my sandwich was wrapped.

Apparently D.C. encourages the use of cloth bags instead. I have free, allegedly environmentally friendly ones from both the libertarian fellowship program I did last year and my undergrad alma mater. The latter largely fell apart under the weight of Russian and Barbri books. It's been hanging in its current tattered state on the coatrack in my office, a shadow of its former self. Maybe that's a good thing: the linked post indicates the cloth bags are actually less environmentally friendly anyway.

What's odd about this tax is that generally if you're a policymaker trying to entrench a revenue-generating program, you want the relevant program to be as invisible as possible. Therein lies the genius of income tax withholding, Milton Friedman's infamous brainchild. The five cent plastic bag tax, on the other hand, is about as visible as possible -- there are little signs in many of the covered retail shops telling the customer that she has a choice to escape the five cents. It's almost as though the D.C. government has chosen this particular approach purely to needle anyone who isn't already a dyed in the wool environmentalist.


  1. Oh, so not a fan of this tax. I wasn't aware of it upon arrival, and so had not brought any of my 10 or so randomly-acquired tote bags from NY, any one of which could have been easily slipped into the purse I ended up trying, failing, to use as a tote to avoid this tax. Ultimately, I was not only overcharged at Whole Foods, but also legitimately charged five cents for the pleasure.

    The bag issue confuses me immensely. Without plastic bags from purchases, what are people supposed to use to take out the trash? Are the bags bought specifically to be trash bags that much more ecologically sound, even in conjunction with the apparent overproduction of (relatively) durable totes?

  2. At the risk of being contrarian:

    1) The link does not actually provide evidence that plastic bags are worse than reusable bags. In any case, I find it difficult to believe that a tote bag with a long lifespan could possibly be inferior in cost of environmental footprint to the stream of plastic bags you'd use over the same time. And plastic grocery bags do not keep your purchases warm/cool, or any of the other benefits (e.g. stylishness) of various types of reusable bags.

    2) Not being sneaky is the point. It wouldn't work as well to modify behavior if it weren't obvious. Although maybe this is a subtle way of encouraging paper bag use: if both are 5 cents, and paper bags hold 4 times as much and have some environmental advantages, maybe people without reusable bags will still shift to a slightly better option.

    3) The typical plastic shopping bag is flimsy, often punctured, and holds so little it is useless for all but the smallest trash jobs. Trash bags that hold 4-5 times as much and are less likely to break and spew trash can be purchased for 10-15 cents per bag. I personally only use bags of any sort for kitchen trash and cat litter and empty small cans into large bags on trash days, washing small cans as necessary.

    4) It's perhaps not fair to compare free tote bags from nonprofits to bags designed for groceries or other robust uses. I have a handful of totes of varying provenance and none have disintegrated from use. One's MMV.

    5) Isn't it more efficient to charge people for what they use? Plastic bag users have just been free-riding off those of us who can tuck purchases into a purse or knapsack. The problem here is not that bags cost money, but that the money goes to DC.

    All this is making me want to knit a grocery bag.

  3. Amber,

    I think part of the problem with tote-bag waste is that, in the excitement over now-we-all-carry-totes, stores, universities, conferences, you name it, are giving totes away, so that we'll all end up with more than we know what to do with. And it's not just the free ones - as soon as the trend hit (and in NY it was not about a tax), every chain started promoting its own totes with massive pictures of the earth or eco-friendly logos next to their own names. If everyone really had just the number of tote bags they needed, then perhaps the bags would be more efficient. But if the totes keep accumulating (and they threaten to take over my apartment), the balance shifts.

    As for trash, some of this could be about apartment versus house living. In my building, trash goes down a shoot and must be in a bag, so just tossing items one by one - as we do in this building for all manner of recycling, not that my neighbors (particularly the one who thought an open but rather full can of beans was good to go) have entirely figured this out - isn't an option. Even if it were, though, nearly all my non-recycling trash is kitchen trash - either plastic bags or smaller produce bags get reused as bin liners.

  4. Well, presumably nobody's forcing anyone to take a tote, and the totes were not all manufactured at once, so if you have enough and don't take one, there's feedback to the tote producer/distributor that demand is satiated.

    All my trash goes out in bags also, as it did when I lived in a building with a chute---it just goes out in one large bag as opposed to one small bag from each can. If you're taking out the garbage frequently enough and/or your kitchen can is small enough, shopping bags may be adequate liners (except when they have holes). But if they're that useful, they're surely worth the nickel.

    Really, I get more annoyed about soda deposits, which are like a forced method of charity (buyer pays deposit and throws out cans, homeless dude collects said cans from recycling bin and redeems for deposits).

  5. Amber,

    You're right that the totes can be rejected at any time. I have to think back to why I have each, and for each, there's a reason, if not a compelling one. College orientation, or the time they gave out nice totes that zip in my department, or one that came with a pair of shoes, where the alternative would have been carrying the box. I find it hard to reject these bags, because if it's two of us grocery shopping, we can easily use a total of four, and variety's always nice. But mostly, it's because when presented with a tote bag, I'm somehow never picturing the many I already have, but am instead thinking of how handy tote bags are. (My two favorites, one that says Glamour that a Parisian friend gave me, and another German space-age-ish one Jo got at a conference, are neither of them especially useful for groceries, but both contribute to making me look like a slightly less disheveled TA.) After this thread, though, I suppose I'll have to react more consciously to this, and reject future offers of unwanted canvas.

    The trash issue... It could also be a function of a studio apartment that the trash must go out at least once a day, but that's all I can come up with. I'd rather not pay the nickel, but will no doubt pay for garbage bags once the few remaining places I shop in NY that provide large plastic bags get the message.

    Soda deposits are forced charity if you don't redeem them yourself, which some of us (see Rita's discussion somewhere on time, money, and can redemption) non-homeless also do. I said tote bags were taking over the apt? More like empty cans and bottles (although less so since the purchase of the miracle seltzer maker). Clearly, the answer is to fill up all these tote bags with cans and get those nickels...