The Laws on Plastic Bags: To Ban or Tax?

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When it comes to single-use plastic bags, the disposal issue is becoming less about whether they are recycled and more about what some cities are doing to reduce their existence in the first place.

If you live in a city near a body of water, it’s likely that there has been legislation proposed or passed to either ban single-use plastic bags or charge a fee for each bag you require at the grocery store. This is because plastic bags are frequently cited as the largest component of marine debris, due to their light weight and frequent use at beaches.

While plastic bags are fully recyclable and can be turned into new products like plastic lumber (as well as new plastic bags), most cities won’t accept them at the curb. In these cases, consumers must return them to a grocery store for recycling, which means only 15 percent of plastic bags are recycled in the U.S.

The 411 on Bag Bans

The first ban on plastic bags in the U.S. occurred in San Francisco in 2007, which was originally conceived as a bag fee. When California passed Assembly Bill 2449 in 2006, it prevented any municipalities from taxing single-use plastic bags, so San Francisco decided to ban retailers from offering them to customers altogether.

Other cities/counties in California eventually followed suit, with Los Angeles, Oakland and San Jose, among others, passing their own ban laws. The entire state joined the ban effort in November 2016 by passing Proposition 67, which prohibits any California retailers from offering single-use plastic bags and charges a $.10 tax on paper bags.

Outside of California, cities like Austin, Portland and Seattle have passed laws to ban plastic bags. Hawaii became the first state to ban plastic bags in 2015.

For some cities, banning plastic bags has proved to be a difficult process. In 2016, Chicago voters decided to repeal its bag ban in favor of a tax on all bags, partly because the ban specified that thicker plastic bags could qualify as reusable and be exempt from the ban. Retailers were distributing these thicker bags to save money, defeating the purpose of the ban.

Minneapolis was set to ban plastic bags in June of this year, but it was overruled by Gov. Mark Dayton the day before the law was to go in effect.

Those who debate the merits of bag bans will often reference the financial impact. Plastic bags usually cost less than 3 cents, while paper bags are three times as expensive.

There is also a health concern with banning disposable bags. In the United Kingdom, there has been an epidemic of food poisoning due to the presence of bacteria on the outer packaging of meat products. These meats are put directly in reusable bags that are also used to bag produce. As a result, stores are now being asked to provide disposable bags for raw meat.

In the U.S., bag bans will typically exclude purchases of items like baked goods, flowers, prescriptions, produce and bulky food.

Lastly, there are plenty of uses for plastic bags other than to carry groceries. Most dog owners use them to collect waste, while others use them to line small trash cans. If the bags are banned, consumers must get clever when finding a solution to these needs.

A Fee for All Bags

The increasingly popular, yet still controversial, route for municipalities is to go the way of disposable bag taxes. In this case, customers have two choices: bring in their own reusable bags, or pay a fee for each bag (paper or plastic) needed, ranging from 5 to 10 cents.

The leader in this effort was our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., which passed a $.05 fee on paper and plastic bags starting in 2010. The money raised was to be contributed to the Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Fund, and raised $10 million in the first five years of the tax.

But when the Washington Post investigated the bag tax in 2015, it found $1.7 million of the tax went toward personnel costs, and $1.2 million was paid for fifth-grade students in D.C. to go on field trips outside the District designed to educate about water quality.

D.C. is actually in the minority when it comes to establishing a fund for the money earned from the tax. That’s because U.S. cities aren’t able to impose a tax without permission from the state, meaning they can’t establish a clean-up fund (D.C. is immune because it isn’t part of a state). This means in other cities, retailers keep the money, so the tax isn’t helping the environment but instead penalizing those who want reusable bags.

Lawsuits are pretty common when it comes to bag fees. In 2015, Dallas approved a $.05 fee on plastic bags, but manufacturers sued the city, claiming that Texas state laws prevent the taxation on any types of containers. The law was repealed after five months.

New York passed Local Law 63 in 2016 that would have required a fee of at least $.05 on all disposable bags. In February of this year, the law was suspended for one year.

Ways Around the Laws

While problems exist with both bans and fees, the easiest way to get around any local laws is to bring your own reusable bags to the store. Just keep them in your car and you’ll always be prepared.

If there are no laws in your area but you don’t know where to recycle plastic bags, you can use Earth911’s recycling locator to find opportunities in your area.

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock

Read More:
Bulk Barn Finally Ditches the Mandatory Plastic Bags
Video: Why Plastic Bags Can’t Go with the Regular Recycling
Fun and Hip Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Plastic Bags

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Trey Granger

Trey Granger

Trey Granger is a former senior waste stream analyst for Earth911.
Trey Granger