A number of cities have adopted or considered adding a small tax to plastic bags as a means to raise a little money and cut down on landfill waste. Kevin Drum notes the experience of the Washington, DC nickel-per-bag tax, for which revenues, which are dedicated to the cleanup of the Anacostia River, have been much less than originally projected because people have so dramatically changed their behavior in response. This leads Drum to speculate:
So why has a small charge been so effective? The actual amount of money involved is pretty tiny, after all. Some guesses:
1. There’s excellent substitutability here, since it’s easy to reuse plastic bags a few times or switch to infinitely reusable cloth bags.
2. People respond disproportionately to being charged for things they’ve been conditioned to think of as free.
3. Green agitprop has put lots of people right on the knife edge of switching to reusable bags already, so a tiny nudge is all that was needed.
4. There’s a bit of an optical illusion here: Customers are still using plastic bags, but insisting that they be filled to bursting so they use fewer of them.
5. Something else.
6. All of the above.
His comments have a good discussion of this, with a lot of responses from folks who are in the affected area. One that strikes me as especially plausible is that by getting cashiers to ask customers if they want their purchases to be placed in bags, it makes it easier for the customer to say “No, I don’t need one”. As an example, this past week I stopped in at a Randall’s to buy a birthday card for my nephew. That was the only thing I bought – this was an emergency trip, because I’d forgotten to send the card on time, because I’m an idiot, but that’s a different story – yet when the cashier handed the card to me, it was in a plastic bag. There’s no possible value in doing this – it’s not like it’s hard to carry a greeting card that isn’t in a bag – but it’s the default behavior. I didn’t even realize the cashier was doing it until she handed it to me. Change the ritual to include the “do you want a bag?” question, which is sometimes the case but clearly not always, and that would have been one less bag. More generally, I believe this will also spur people to get more in the habit of bringing their own bags when they know they’ll need them.
Now as it happens, plastic bags like the one I got at Randall’s are recyclable. And indeed, that bag wound up in another bag, which we use to collect recyclable plastic bags, including the ones our daily Houston Chronicle gets delivered in. Unfortunately, you can’t put bags in your curbside recycling bin, nor can you take them to a neighborhood recycling center like the one on Westpark with your glass and electronics and whatnot. You can take them to a grocery store, but I’d bet that 99% or more of all plastic bags handed out in this town wind up in the garbage. Given that the city is already taking other steps to cut solid waste costs by reducing the demand for landfill space, and given the city’s dire budget situation, doesn’t it make sense to try a bag tax like this? If people change their behavior, as it seems likely they will, it’s a boon for the environment and a cost-saver for the city. If they don’t, it’s a few bucks towards balancing the budget. Either way, it’s all good. So why not give it a try?