Plastic Bag Tax: Full Speed Ahead

by Casey Mills on February 2, 2005

The debate over the proposed plastic bag tax is heating up, with the opinions of community activists, elected politicians and shoppers quickly solidifying. Before the real battle begins, it’s time to unify progressive support behind this important, fiscally smart piece of legislation that would ultimately benefit all San Franciscans.

For environmentalists, the tax is a no-brainer. It would reduce the waste of a substance that doesn’t degrade for at least fifty years, help keep the potentially fatal bags out of the digestive tracts of sea turtles and fish, and beautify our surroundings.

For those who believe the tax seems like one more ‘only in San Francisco’ pipe-dream, a quick jaunt around the globe should dispel this. Ireland instituted a 15 cent per bag tax, and reduced use by 95 percent. After discovering that massive floods submerging over half its land had been caused in part by plastic bags clogging drains, Bangladesh banned the bags completely. And Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the Philippines, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom all have plans to either ban or tax plastic bags.

Perhaps the most common argument against the tax remains that it would disproportionately affect working-class people. Before any discussion of this begins, it is important to recognize the genesis of this argument – the American Plastics Council, a lobbyist group who works on behalf of the globe’s biggest plastic manufacturers.

This argument ignores several important facts. First, the tax leaves the choice as to whether to pay the tax or not entirely up to the shopper. Working class and low-income people will have to make the same decision as middle and upper class shoppers – should they bring their own bags from home and avoid the tax, or refuse to and pay the tax?

Some might argue low-income folks might not be able to afford their own bags. But when you consider that not only could low-income people use any bag they have – suitcase, backpack, pillowcase, etc. – purchasing 20 plastic bags for the total cost of $3.30 could provide enough reusable bags to last months.

Not only that, but half the funds gained from the tax would go back to supermarkets for the explicit purpose of enacting city-approved plans to reduce plastic bag waste. One early idea for such a plan would be to provide reusable bags to low-income shoppers.

Second, low-income people are already paying indirectly for plastic bags. According to the Department of the Environment, the City pays tens of millions of dollars every year to clean up and dispose of all the plastic bags thrown away by shoppers. That’s money that could be spent keeping social services for the poor running, recreation centers open, and funding a variety of other causes that benefit low-income people.

Finally, wealthier shoppers, who often purchase a variety of luxury products and an excess of food, are likely producing a disproportionate amount of plastic bag waste. By putting a tax on bags, those who use them the most would pay the most, rather than all San Franciscans shouldering the burden equally.

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi co-sponsored the request for a nexus study on the tax with Mayor Gavin Newsom, but the idea was originally Mirkarimi’s. As tempting as it sounds to share the burden of anger from certain conservative voters over the tax, Mirkarimi should reclaim possession of the tax and run with it.

In a time of severe budgetary crisis, with progressives looking high and low to scrape together any sort of revenue they can, the tax makes economic sense. A variety of state laws and the fiscally conservative nature of many voters make new, progressive taxation very difficult to enact. With half the revenue from the plastic bag tax going to the City Treasurer, the plastic bag tax represents a simple, realistic way to raise revenue in an environmentally just manner. The tax would also likely save the City a substantial amount of money, as there would be less plastic bags for city workers to clean up.

The idea for the plastic bag tax remains in its infancy, and there will be plenty of opportunities for opponents to weaken or even kill future legislation. Progressives should declare their support now for the strongest tax possible, and be ready to organize to see it enacted when it comes before the Board of Supervisors for approval.

Filed under: Archive