Plastic Bag Makers Try To Block Progress


Plastic bag manufacturers have mounted a particularly galling advertising campaign to stop California from implementing its new $0.25 per bag tax on disposable grocery bags. Called "Stop the Bag Tax," the campaign appeals to the burgeoning "consumer panic" over spiraling prices for food and fuel. "Food, Gas, and now THIS!" screams their site.

As if the cost of gas and food isn’t enough… politicians now want to charge you $.25 on every grocery bag. That adds up to about $400 per family per year!

Well, of course it does, if the consuming morons just keep consuming like good little consumers. But if they are paying any attention at all, they might just buy a half-dozen canvas or hemp grocery bags for three or four dollars apiece and bring them to the store. That would be a lot cheaper for them, and accomplish the intent of the law. (Switching to paper is not a solution, since paper manufacturing is just about as resource intensive, and even more polluting than plastic manufacture).

Is this about changing behavior? Of course it is. Some libertarians and resource cornucopians might cast it as an issue of personal freedom–the freedom to use and dispose of as many plastic bags as one cares to. Maybe like some sort of God-given right.

Now before we go too far into condemning this viewpoint, I have to say that given certain circumstances, I might be compelled to agree with them. I would agree if the consumer were paying the entire cost of the transaction. But they don’t. In our economy of subsidized energy and waste disposal, consumers rarely pay for the externalities that stem from their purchases. In the case of plastic bags, these externalities include hidden costs of both production and disposal of literally trillions of bags. They include but are not limited to:

  1. Costs of depletion of natural gas (already past-peak in North America). We are going to have to build an entire infrastructure to find alternatives for depleting gas, or change over all our homes to be heated by something else. This does not even mention other uses of natural gas such as power generation (about 20% of electricity consumption).
  2. Costs of CO2 emissions from the energy used to create the bag.
  3. Disposal costs for the vast majority of bags not recycled (only about 1% are).
  4. Costs of cleaning up bag litter (featherweight bags have a nasty habit of escaping from almost any container or landfill).
  5. Costs to the marine ecosystem of the continent-sized floating plastic islands (largely made from plastic bags).

If we lived in a sustainable society which planned ahead even a little bit, we would incorporate these costs into the cost of products. Plastic bags would therefore already be much more expensive, and we would probably use far fewer of them. Markets can only drive correct decisions by consumers when they incorporate all the relevant information. Giving away plastic bags at grocery stores is just about the worst idea you could possibly come up with–if your goal is sustainability.

However, if your goal is to enrich a few large chemical companies who manufacture bags, it’s brilliant. From the Stop The Bag Tax site:

Sponsored by the Progressive Bag Affiliates of the American Chemistry Council and The California Film Extruders and Converters Association

The whole commotion sounds like a death rattle from a bunch of people who stand to lose big from a reduction in plastic bag usage, right?

We wouldn’t need a "bag tax" if the markets were functioning properly. But giving away free bags is a craven institutionalized deception at the most fundamental level. It feeds consumers fantasies of "out-of-sight-out-of-mind" production and disposal. As the Austin Powers character said about the free-love of the ’60s and ’70s, "a consequence-free environment." But this suppression of true costs has got to come to an end if we are to ever make good decisions about resource allocation. And we have to if we are going to successfully share this planet with over 7 billion people.

Consumers do not need to behave like sheep. That mentality is demeaning and dehumanizing. There would be no guilt involved in consumption if the whole process weren’t based so strongly on deception. We are all consumers. And we are not that stupid–we’ve just been lied to. Our only fault is that we’ve willingly believed the lie–because it has been convenient. But those times of blissful ignorance are coming to an end. We will make the right choices when given the right information.

A $0.25 tax on bags is not a government money grab, it’s a price signal. Ideally, if the law accomplishes its desired result, no taxes would be collected at all–since smart consumers woudn’t be using or disposing of these pointless bags.

Comments (8 comments)

Samuel Skinner / August 2nd, 2008, 8:46 pm / #1

Taxes per item always hurt poor people more. Of course, anything involving taxes hurts poor people more- that is the problem with being poor.

It is irrelevant to wheter or not the tax is a good idea, as you pointed out. It is similar to taxing cigarettes.

William Prophet / August 2nd, 2008, 10:40 pm / #2

Hi Sean. In 1985 I was stationed in Germany at a US Army base. I didn’t go to the German grocery stores very often, however when I did I noticed that shoppers were being charged for every paper bag the store provided. Almost all customers brought their own bags, however those that didn’t were charged a minimal fee, perhaps 10 cents per bag. I don’t know if it was a government tax or if the store simply charged customers for the bags to offset the cost. In any case I thought it was a great idea and never forgot it. Fast food restaurants also charged a minimal fee for extra packaged condiments (i.e. ketchup, mayonnaise, etc.), and I think it was approximately 2 1/2 cents (5 pfennig at the time … or at least somewhere in that ball park). I was told that they charged for the condiments so people didn’t take more than they needed and then throw the unused portions away. Again I thought that was a brilliant idea. I also learned that they planted two trees for every one that was cut down (or some similar ratio) in order to replenish the forests as they were used. My guess is that the country is highly sensitive to environmental issues because geographically it’s very small, relative to the United States, and therefore they may value their land space and natural resources more than we do. Maybe part of the reason is also because gas has always been much more expensive there than here, and we are now simply “catching up” to the place in time where they have been for at least the last 23 years. In any case I find the “bag issue” very interesting. Thanks for all your great articles! -Bill … p.s. Many grocery stores, and some retail stores (for example Target and OSH), sell reusable bags of some durable material for approximately one dollar each. Not very expensive for a one time purchase of 10 to 15 bags. Some grocery stores also give you money back for each bag you bring to the store for your purchases. For example Ralphs gives the customer 5 cents for each bag that the customer brings and uses during the shopping trip, regardless of what type of bag it is. So, not only do you help the environment, but you also can save money on groceries. Pretty cool! One final thought is that customers can also simply request not to use a bag at all if they are only buying a few items that can be easily carried by hand. The key is to request “no bags” before the employee bags any of the items … otherwise the bags that were used for all of 2 seconds and are now empty will most likely end up in the trash because it’s “too difficult” for the employees to use the bags now that they’ve been torn off the bag holder. No joke, I’ve seen them do it many times. ’nuff said.

Aspentroll / August 3rd, 2008, 11:02 am / #3

Many stores in Canada will sell you strong cloth bags which will fit on the cashiers thingie when they bag your purchases. They usually cost about a
buck a bag and are reusable for a very long time. This totally eliminates the use of plastic bags as far as you are are concerned. The only problem which exist for me is to remember to put them in the car before shopping. I promise I will train myself to do this. If everyone did this plastic bags would become a menace of the past.

bulldada / August 3rd, 2008, 6:04 pm / #4

This is based on bad research. There is no scientific evidence that proves that plastic bags directly harm animals. Just like global warming, it is easy to jump on the bandwagon and preach, than to actually understand.

In Newfoundland, Canada a study found that thousands of birds were dying because of discarded nets. Somewhere along the line, this was changed to include plastic bags.

A marine biologist, David Santilloor, of Greenpeace says this: “It’s very unlikely that many animals are killed by plastic bags … The evidence shows just the opposite. We are not going to solve the problem of waste by focusing on plastic bags.”

This is just another example of mass hysteria that comes along with the enviromental movement (much like the senator who recently said global warming affects blacks more than it does whites).

The root of the green movement has nothing to do with the enviroment. It is all about anti-capitalism. Thats why the government gets the money for the bags instead of the grocery store who buys them.

This is a great idea, i’ll admit. Less trash is a good thing, noone would disagree. But to ban plastic is even dumber than banning marijuana.

Let the free market rule. Don’t tread on me, and all those other Libertarian slogans…

Read this link for the real story:

BlackSun / August 3rd, 2008, 6:18 pm / #5


If you want a free market, you need to force everyone to pay for their externalities. Otherwise it’s subsidized and not truly free. Why is this so hard to understand?

Get educated about externalities and natural capitalism. I dare you.

This is the piece you’ve been missing. You’d think conservatives and capitalists would be all in favor of people paying their fair share. They want people to be all self-reliant and pay for their own health care, etc. So how come that breaks down for corporations at the environmental level?

There may have been flawed studies about killing animals, but that wasn’t even the biggest concern. You didn’t say anything about the floating morass of plastic in the ocean, nor about the depletion of natural gas, nor about the problem of bag litter.

Finally, no one is talking about banning the bags, only about a sensible fee that serves as a reminder for people to bring their own reusable bags. 

bulldada / August 3rd, 2008, 6:28 pm / #6

And another thing:

consumers rarely pay for the externalities that stem from their purchases.

This is patently false. Any time a corporation has it’s taxes raised, they raise their prices, directly effecting the “consuming morons [who] just keep consuming like good little consumers” (meaning everyone in America), and especially the poor.

The green movement hurts the poor more than anyone. But hell, “People Are Pollution” as the newest saying goes, and how can the poor non-bloggers get the word out?

They are expendable, according to the Extreme Enviromentalists. Afterall, the earth is overpopulated!(ha ha ha! I’m from your stomping ground Sean, we both know that ain’t true!)

Don’t block me Sean. Love your work. Just gotta disagree with ya on this enviromental BS. Keep fightin the good fight, Bro.

BlackSun / August 3rd, 2008, 6:46 pm / #7


First of all, I would never block someone for making an honest argument. Hopefully you know me better than that.

Second, corporate taxation is not the same as paying for externalities.

Externalities are very specific costs not paid by the parties to a transaction–for instance, consequences of dumping or emitting something into the environment. General taxation does not solve this problem. Only taxes or fees tied directly to the act causing the externality are effective.

So it doesn’t matter how high corporate taxes were raised, it takes specific payment tied to behavior in order to send a price signal to the management and shareholders to see an advantage in changing their behavior.

For a case study, see Interface Carpets, (sustainability report here), which decided about 7-10 years ago to unilaterally restructure its business to become sustainable and pay for its externalities. After a short transitional period, and taking some moderate losses, the company became more profitable than ever.

Monetizing externalities is a very important tool for economic and environmental transformation. In the process, prosperity and profits will increase. It just takes a change in our thinking from short-term to long-term. This could be a huge boon to America and the world.

As far as taxes affecting the poor disproportionately, you apparently don’t acknowledge that the poor are capable of changing their behavior and thus avoiding the tax. How hard can it be to keep some canvas shopping bags in their cars? 

Aspentroll / August 4th, 2008, 9:28 am / #8

Previously I spoke of using strong cloth bags in place of plastic bags at the grocery stores. Probably all the other stores use plastic bags so I really wonder how much good will be accomplished if all the stores don’t go
permanent cloth style bags. We live in the country and have to take our
garbage to a nearby town, we compost all the vegetable waste and burn the paper waste. Our tin cans go into a recycle bin which leaves us one plastic bag for the rest.
I can see that living in a a large city could cause some people to become lazy about their waste products, knowing that the city garbage guys will take away all their problems.
I think we may all be living on a giant garbage dump some day.

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