Paper or Plastic: Either Way, You Pay

This week the Seattle City Council approved an ordinance that, as of January, will require shoppers at grocery, drug, and convenience stores to pay 20 cents for each paper or plastic bag they use:

The city will distribute at least one free reusable bag per household, and it will consider providing more free bags to low-income shoppers.

"This is a voluntary fee," said Council President Richard Conlin, who worked with Mayor Greg Nickels on the proposal. "No one has to pay it. You only have to pay it if you choose not to use reusable bags."

Can we stop it with this "voluntary tax" nonsense already? If you put your groceries in an unapproved bag, the government forces you to pay the fee, so it's not voluntary. By Conlin's logic, sales tax also is voluntary (you don't have to buy stuff), as are alcohol and tobacco taxes (you don't have to drink or smoke), air travel taxes (you don't have to fly), gas taxes (you don't have to drive), property taxes (you don't have to own a house), and income taxes (you don't have to make money).

A more plausible argument would be that the bag charge is a sort of user fee, since people who use disposable grocery bags generate more trash, which the city collects and dumps. The problem (other than the government monopoly on trash collection) is that bag usage is not necessarily a good indicator of how much trash a household produces. It would make much more sense to directly charge people based on how much they throw away, which would give them an incentive to reduce/reuse/recycle in many areas of life, not just in their choice of grocery sacks. Instead Seattle charges by the container, no matter how full.

Then, too, if the issue is trash, the city should charge more for paper bags than it does for plastic bags, which, as New York Times science writer John Tierney notes in a column Katherine Mangu-Ward cited earlier today, "take up much less space in landfills." They also "require much less energy..to manufacture, ship and recycle," and "they generate less air and water pollution."

[Thanks to Paul in Seattle for the tip.]

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  • ||

    I think they mean voluntary as in the IRS's definition of "voluntary compliance." As in, if you don't volunteer, we'll hunt you down and put you in jail.

  • Naga Sadow||

    Why bag anything at all? I would just tell em to stack it in the buggy the way I grabbed it off the shelf.

  • Guy Montag||

    Oh, how about Seattle try something really radical, like maybe competing private waste firms and private landfills?

    I have a hunch that there might be just enough idle land in driving distance of Seattle to bury all of those tofu wrappers, Starbucks cups, organic free range chicken and fish bones, etc.

  • ||

    OK Dick Conlin, but I'm going to drive my H2 to the store more often since I'll only be buying 1 bag of goods at a time. Thanks for killing the planet asshole.

  • Guy Montag||

    I would just tell em to stack it in the buggy the way I grabbed it off the shelf.

    I think that is what some of the locals do around here. But they always seem to have the same stuff in their shopping carts while pushing them down the sidewalk.

    Creatures of habit . . .

  • Episiarch||

    This is a money grab. They know people will forget to bring reusable bags. The shopper will have spent 45 minutes filling a grocery cart with goods, and then when they realize they can either spend a few dollars more (for the planet, of course) or have wasted all that time and go home for reusable bags, almost all will just pay up.

    It's like bottle deposits. They are totally unnecessary with all the recycling now, but so many people find claiming the deposit to be too much of a pain in the ass (me included) to bother, and the state pockets the money.

  • Guy Montag||

    blameless,

    If you tell them that you are a "low-income shopper" then you get more bags!

  • Naga Sadow||

    Guy,

    I say my idea of "bumming" the cart was better.

  • gorgonzola\'s foil||

    I do half my grocery shopping at a BJ's wholesale club. BJ's doesn't have bags at all. The world doesn't end. The business model doesn't need to supply bags to work.

    That said, expensive stores in my area like Whole Foods credit .05 per bag of yours you use in lieu of getting a disposable. A midrange store gives the credit if you use their branded permanent bag. Large paper bags cost .50 per each at stalls at an area farmer's market (I've only been comped these bags when I buy a whole turkey). So, already, today, free bag vs charged bag is an area of price discrimination between grocers across the price-point range.

    Here's my question: can a Seattle operation eat this cost for their customers (and bury it in the price of prepared convenience hot-bar items) or does it have to pass through as a nanny item? If it's going to be 20 cents anyway, can they use a 30 gallon Hefty sack for the whole cart?

  • Josh in Seattle||

    I live in Seattle and have struggled with this one for a while. Been trying to do a "libertarian litmus test" on the issue...

    I hate that the government is compelling us to do something, especially when the other "voluntary taxes" are so burdensome. At the same time, unlike property tax and income tax this is a tax with a very simple, inexpensive, and easy to implement alternative - keep a few canvas bags in your car. Even if the environmental impact from eliminating plastic bags is nil, they are carry more stuff and are not prone to rip.

    Thoughts?

  • gorgonzola\'s foil||

    Also, good call on the container rate. A leading feature of my college town was the trash tag system: 1 tag per plastic bag or two tags per full canister, no tags on recycling. A sheet of tags was 20 or 30 bucks. That's the kind of immediate feedback to incentivize recycling, though only implementable because of the dynamic where the direct cost is imposed in real time on renters instead of on property owners.

  • Guy Montag||

    I live in Seattle and have struggled with this one for a while. Been trying to do a "libertarian litmus test" on the issue...

    If this one is too hard to figure out then I don't know what to tell you.

  • Highway||

    Meanwhile, at our local grocery stores, they sell reusable bags for the high price of... 99 cents. Sure, they're not LL Bean quality bags, but they're better than plastic, have a flat bottom, and fold up nicely. I don't see why attaching a 'we'll give everyone a reusable bag' was in this program, except to make dipweed politicians feel like it was fair. Meanwhile, they're definitely spending more than a dollar apiece on distributing bags to everyone.

  • ||

    3rd option: who gives a fuck?

    The tree farmers lost a bit of business. Not like they were cutting down some exotic Brazilian teak to make the pulp for the bag.

    Thanks for making less trees, Dan Conlin.

  • ||

    If they put a high tax on douche bags, this guy might go broke.

  • ||

    "If this one is too hard to figure out then I don't know what to tell you."

    Here, I'll help you out Guy: Placing a tax on paper and plastic bags is an excellent way to better address a negative externality, as in directly link the consumer to the waste stream he/she creates.

    Oh wait, but that makes entirely too much sense. Never mind.

  • ||

    I like this plan. They clearly didn't want to penalize fregans and shoplifters, who are doing their part to care for Mother Earth and don't add to the trash issue.

  • ||

    The shopper will have spent 45 minutes filling a grocery cart with goods, and then when they realize they can either spend a few dollars more (for the planet, of course) or have wasted all that time and go home for reusable bags, almost all will just pay up.



    That's the way it is with all taxes. Almost all choose to pay up because the alternatives are too painful. Don't want to pay income tax? Don't earn the money you need to eat! See how voluntary it is?

  • squarooticus||

    Normally, I think protests are useless. But in this case, it might actually be effective to go to the grocery store, fill a cart full of stuff, go to check out, "realize" you don't have your bags with you, refuse to pay for paper or plastic, and then leave the full cart at the checkout and watch in amusement as someone needs to restock the $20 filet mignon, 10 lbs. of chicken breast, 5 gallons of milk, and a pile of assorted items from throughout the store.

    I imagine the grocery stores would get very angry with the city council very quickly if enough people pulled this stunt.

  • ||

    Gosh pinko, thank god you're here to explain everything to us. I'd still be scratching my head.

    I imagine the grocery stores would get very angry with the city council very quickly if enough people pulled this stunt.

    Nah, you'll just stick some poor schlub with the job of shopping everything back after it warms up, a couple hours later.

    < rant>I understand the lure of city life, but when you step back and consider how absolutely corrupt most city guvmints are and how they are by far the more meddling and nanny-istic of the lot, I just can't understand why anyone would *want* to live in a city and subject themsleves to this kind of abuse. < /rant>

  • ||

    I'm not a fan of this, but all Seattle residents have to do is keep several bags in the car, and then have the checkout person put the goods in the cart. Then you take it out to the car and bag it yourself. That's pretty much how it's done in Germany, since supermarkets don't bag anything here for you. Seriously. In fact, one local supermarket tried the American-style bagboy model and quit it after a month because very few customers wanted to either a) hold up the line or b) let someone else bag their stuff for them.

  • ||

    The shopper will have spent 45 minutes filling a grocery cart with goods, and then when they realize they can either spend a few dollars more (for the planet, of course) or have wasted all that time and go home for reusable bags, almost all will just pay up.

    It doesn't have to go that way. I'm sure some enterprising homeless people will collect plastic bags from the garbage and hawk them on the corner next to the grocery store for ten cents each, simultaneously giving new meaning to the terms "dime bag" and "bag lady". Everybody wins.

  • fyodor||

    The tree farmers lost a bit of business. Not like they were cutting down some exotic Brazilian teak to make the pulp for the bag.

    I've seen that theory before and it makes sense. But is there any empirical evidence that it's true? (Not every theory that appears to make sense turns out to be true!) And why aren't the tree farmers yelling bloody murder if all recycling does is reduce their business??

  • Seattle Resident||

    I'm not a fan of this, but all Seattle residents have to do is keep several bags in the car, and then have the checkout person put the goods in the cart.

    I have my car with me about 1 out of 50 trips to the grocery store...and the reusable bags don't fit in my pocket very well.

    I recycle/reuse all the bags I get from my grocery.

    Not a big deal really, as this might add 20-30 bucks to my grocery bill in a year to pay for the privilege of not carrying a grocery bag with me, but don't pretend everyone in Seattle drives to the grocer.

    The other provisions in the bill make more sense to me.

  • Paul||

    I understand the lure of city life, but when you step back and consider how absolutely corrupt most city guvmints are and how they are by far the more meddling and nanny-istic of the lot, I just can't understand why anyone would *want* to live in a city and subject themsleves to this kind of abuse.

    JW, I used to think (about Seattle) "Why would I want to live anywhere else"? Quality of life here was excellent before any of these rules and laws were in place. Somehow, it largely worked on 'culture' alone. Now with all the rules, I'm seriously questioning whether I'll live here for the rest of my days. When the behaviors that make Seattle unique become "mandatory", it somehow takes the fun and quality of life out of the equation.

  • ||

    It's like bottle deposits. They are totally unnecessary with all the recycling now, but so many people find claiming the deposit to be too much of a pain in the ass (me included) to bother, and the state pockets the money.

    They actually do have a positive impact on litter here in Michigan. People will pick up an empty that's worth a dime. It's likely marginal on the recycling thingee as you say.

  • ||

    Obviously they are doing their best to combat obesity by encouraging people to stop eating-completely.

    In L.A. they "help people eat healthier" by taking away restaurants and not allowing healthier options either.

    In Seattle apparently they expect people to use no bags or 1 "reusable" bag. Hmm, I use at least 8-10 bags every time I go to the grocery store because I actually, you know, feed my family. The price of the bags is included in my purchase.

    I guess I would just lug a bunch of empty boxes or a few large Rubbermaid containers. Or better yet I could just take coolers full of ice to the store. That would make more sense.

  • egore||

    I don't think landfill space is a problem with the plastic bags. According to my calculations, I could fit 30-70 million plastic grocery bags in my 12'x12'x8' bedroom. That's being conservative by half (based on specs from the web and actual measurements, respectively).

  • Paul||

    egore, landfill space, as you point out, is not the problem. It's plastics vis. petrolium products. Plain and simple.

  • Robert||

    Jim Lewis referred to excises as "elective" taxes because they were on a few luxury goods that you didn't have to buy.

  • ||

    Luxury goods like gasoline?

  • ||

    I have my car with me about 1 out of 50 trips to the grocery store...and the reusable bags don't fit in my pocket very well.

    Wow, those reusable bags they use there must be huge.

    More seriously, get a backpack in which you can carry your bags (and groceries). When we don't take a car, that's what I do.

    Not a big deal really, as this might add 20-30 bucks to my grocery bill in a year to pay for the privilege of not carrying a grocery bag with me, but don't pretend everyone in Seattle drives to the grocer.

    Well, pretending I wasn't, but I was assuming that anyone needing more bags than they could carry with them would be driving. I suppose that was a poor assumption. Still, I sure as hell wouldn't spend 20-30 dollars more per year on this.

  • ||

    Meanwhile, at our local grocery stores, they sell reusable bags for the high price of... 99 cents. Sure, they're not LL Bean quality bags, but they're better than plastic, have a flat bottom, and fold up nicely.



    Yeah, I bought a couple of those. Was NOT amused when they started ripping apart at the seams on the 3rd use.

    I have my car with me about 1 out of 50 trips to the grocery store...and the reusable bags don't fit in my pocket very well.

    Wow, those reusable bags they use there must be huge.



    I've never seen a grocery-store reusable bag that was designed to fit small enough to go in my (not tiny) purse, much less a pocket. I've seen a couple of Target's reusable bags helpfully designed to fold up and snap or zip together in an easy-to-carry way, but the typical Meijers or Giant Eagle grocery store reusable bag folds up - but doesn't fold very small and doesn't stay folded. You can put a couple of them into another bag, and use one to carry the others - but that's not particularly convenient for carrying with you to work if you're swinging by the store for a bagful or 2 of groceries on your walk (or bike ride) home.

    And while a co-worker occasionally raves about the reusable bags she bought at Trader Joe's or the Container Store, those are on the wrong side of town for me, and I'm really not interested in driving 10 or 15 miles out of my way (each way) for the privilege of buying decent reusable bags. . . .

  • Seattle Resident||

    TheOtherOne

    You get it.
    JosephD doesn't.

    Yes, if I have my briefcase with me I can put a reusable grocery bag inside and have it with me.

    If I swing by on a day I don't have my briefcase, the things don't fit in my wallet.

  • Guy Montag||

    Amazing.

    On an L board there are people who think it is a great idea to have an unconscionable tax placed on disposable bags that are already being taxed at disposal. Also, there are people who really don't know if it is or not.

    Amazing.

    Next up: how Jimmy Carter's windfall profits tax was ahead of its time! Side discussion on how the John Anderson gas surcharge is long overdue.

  • Neu Mejican||

    The funny thing is...now people will have to choose between paying 20 cents for their grocery bag, or bringing their reusable bag and putting a box of plastic garbage bags into the reusable bag for use in their kitchen trashcan. I am pretty sure that the box of bags will be full of larger bags made of sturdier material that will take up more landfill space and use more energy to produce.

    I reuse or recycle all the plastic bags I get from the grocer. I bet there a lots of people in Seattle who do this also. Despite the well intentioned attempt (see Pinko above) to tie costs to waste stream, this seems to make no sense.

  • Dello||

    Epi,
    "This is a money grab. They know people will forget to bring reusable bags. The shopper will have spent 45 minutes filling a grocery cart with goods, and then when they realize they can either spend a few dollars more (for the planet, of course) or have wasted all that time and go home for reusable bags, almost all will just pay up."

    Only the stupid ones. The smart ones will put a box of 13 gallon trash bags in the cart the first time they're forced to pay for a bag (since the bags get used for kitty liter, holding recyclables, and lining garbage cans anyway) and open it to haul the food out to the SUV. Then on future trips, they'll pay for the groceries and then make everyone behind them wait while they run out to the SUV (where the box of bags is stored) to avoid paying for new ones.

    At least I will.

  • Syd||

    TheOtherOne | July 31, 2008, 8:14am | #

    Yeah, I bought a couple of those. Was NOT amused when they started ripping apart at the seams on the 3rd use.


    So how do you feel when disposable plastic or paper bags rip on the way home?

    I bought several canvas cloth bags at Hobby Lobby years ago, use them frequently, and have not had one rip yet. That's why I use them. And why do the bags have to fit in your pocket? Do bags fit in your pocket when they're full of groceries.

  • Neu Mejican||

    And why do the bags have to fit in your pocket? Do bags fit in your pocket when they're full of groceries.

    I believe the point is that most people don't want to carry around empty canvas bags just in case they might drop by the grocery store on the way home from work.

  • ||

    So how do you feel when disposable plastic or paper bags rip on the way home?

    I bought several canvas cloth bags at Hobby Lobby years ago, use them frequently, and have not had one rip yet. That's why I use them. And why do the bags have to fit in your pocket? Do bags fit in your pocket when they're full of groceries.



    I'm careful about how much weight I put in a bag, so the plastic ones don't usually rip on me. When I've spent money on a bag specifically because they say it's reusable, and only get a couple of uses out of it, it makes me leary of buying more "reusable" bags.

    And no, the groceries don't fit in my pocket - but I don't carry the groceries around ALL DAY. If I'm carrying the bags with me all day - not just home from the store - then they need to be convenient to carry around. And most of the grocery-store reusable bags only fold flat for stacking somewhere. They don't stay folded if you try to carry them around, and they don't fit conveniently into the stuff I carry all day.

    It's not the end of the world, true, but they'd be a lot more user-friendly if they were a bit smaller and folded up into a more convenient arrangment for those that need to tuck them into a purse or backpack. Given that the point is to enable those who want to waste less, shouldn't some thought have been given to how they would actually be used?

    And I do understand that there are better bags out there - but I don't want to order something off the web, because then I won't be able to see/touch it first. I also don't want to drive to the other side of town just to pick up some reusable grocery bags . . . .

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