What To Do About the Bag Tax?

What do do about the bag tax?  The County Council is currently considering the question, including options for expanding the tax, increasing it, reducing the types of retail locations which must charge it, and banning plastic bags completely.
MoCo reports that the county has taken in about $2 million from the bag tax, much more than had been expected.  This demonstrates that some combination of the following conclusions is true:

(a) shoppers find bags to be convenient, and are willing to pay for them

(b) grocery shoppers have learned that plastic bags are a more sanitary way of carrying food, and are seeking to avoid the bacterial diseases associated with reusable bags

(c) the bag tax, in the end, has just been a way to raise revenues for the cash-strapped county government.

The negative effects of the bag tax are beginning to pile up:

Retail thefts and shoplifting have surged in areas where bag taxes are put into place, as it becomes much easier for shoplifters to pilfer merchandise and slip it into the shopping bags they are already carrying.  This phenomenon seems to be found wherever bag taxes (or bans) have been put into effect.

Council member Craig Rice has noted a corollary to this problem.  As department stores have become suspicious of people walking around with roomy bags, racial profiling leads to more black men being stopped and interrogated by store security personnel.

– Theft of supermarket grocery baskets has increased. Apparently, people figure that they need a convenient way to carry their purchases, but don’t want to pay extra for bags.

– Most distressingly, researchers are finding evidence of illnesses associated with these bans.  This was predictable, as shoppers are carrying fresh meat, vegetables, and fast food fried chicken and hamburgers in these bags, over and over again.   Even beyond microbial contamination, reusable bags often have toxic materials, like lead, that leach into the food people carry. Senator Charles Schumer of New York has called for a federal investigation of this problem.

One-use bags are also more sanitary.  Since people tend not to wash their reusable bags, they increase the risk of food-borne illness.  Studies of San Francisco, which banned plastic bags in 2007, reported that after the bag ban there was a spike in the number of E. coli cases and increase in deaths from foodborne illnesses.  Another study found that 8 percent of all reusable bags contained E. coli and doubted how often shoppers actually wash their bag.

– Finally, the environmental impacts of the bag tax are at question.  There is anecdotal evidence of reduced bag litter in the county’s waterways, but increased litter from bottles and food packaging, which is harder to carry without a bag.  The bag tax, in effect, creates an incentive for increasing this kind of litter.  Not only that, but the tax increases total resource consumption.  People tended to reuse plastic grocery bags for dog waste, lining trash baskets, etc.  The National Black Chamber of Commerce notes that consumption of store-bought plastic bags increased by 400 percent in Ireland, after that country implemented a bag tax.

The bag tax is a classic example of unintended consequences of legislation.  (OK, that’s a generous term.  I’d say it is an example of a failure of policy analysis).  Unless bringing in more revenue for the county government was the main purpose,  the tax is doing much more harm than good.  Certainly expansion of the tax (or a ban) would be even more harmful.

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