Plastic Bags

Chicago's New Bag Tax Will Generate $13 Million, Won't Save Environment

So, it's working as planned.


Richard B. Levine/Newscom

A new tax on paper and plastic bags in Chicago will generate an estimated $12.9 million annually for the city's coffers but is unlikely to reduce the number of bags used by Chicagoans.

The 7 cent per bag tax was included in the new city budget approved on Nov. 16 and will go into effect on Jan. 1, but analysts say the fee is probably too low to change the behavior of Chicago residents or businesses. After the tax is collected, most of the revenue will flow directly to the city's budget and will not be used for environmental restoration or pollution clean-up—as is the case in other places where similar taxes have been imposed for supposedly environmental reasons.

The city will get 5 cents of the tax from every bag, while retailers will be allowed to keep the other 2 pennies per bag. An analysis by the Better Government Association, an Illinois-based civil action organization, found that retailers could pocket as much as $3.7 million next year because of the tax.

While the city and retailers will be able to get more money from shoppers, the bag tax probably won't do much to change behavior.

"The Chicago tax, which will apply to paper as well as plastic, is far lower than the 30-cent a bag charge that successfully curbed behavior in Ireland, raising questions about whether shoppers at grocery and retail outlets will view it more as an annoying trifle than a penalty to actively avoid," the Better Government Association concludes.

Bag taxes seem to split progressives between two camps: those who believe the taxes are worth it (necessary, even) to stop pollution and nudge shoppers towards reusable bags, and those who see the taxes as regressive and bad for the poor.

Both perspectives miss the reality of what has happened in places with taxes similar to what has passed in Chicago.

A 2015 audit of a 5 cent per bag tax in Washington, D.C., found that it did little to change consumers' behavior. Of the $10 million generated over the first five years that the tax was in place, most of it was used to pay for city workers and to cover the cost of field trips for school students, not for the environmental repair work promised by advocates of the tax.

In other places, taxes have created a temporary decline in bag usage. John Halstead, professor of environmental and resource economics at the University of New Hampshire, told the Chicago Tribune that convenience ultimately wins out as consumers rationalize paying a few extra pennies for their bags. "Basically there was one year of decreased bag usage and then people just opted to pay the fee," Halstead said.

The real reason taxes like this are enacted is to pad government budgets. Chicago already has a similarly surreptitious tax on bottled water (also passed in the name of being green). If you prefer to get you water from the tap, you'll pay a tax on that too—in August, the city instituted a new tax on water and sewage in order to plug a massive public pension deficit.

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  1. In terms of percentage, how high is this tax? About 1000%? Maybe more?

    1. Much more. Those things are about ten to the penny.

  2. They just enacted the statewide ban on bags in California. The most interesting thing about the POS legislation is that it went active 1 or 2 days before the election. I’ve been wondering if the Republicans- who have next to no power in CA legislature- were responsible for slipping the timing in there.

  3. Ok, it’s time for everyone to stop commenting. I have to go put up our Christmas tree.

  4. Wording suggestion:

    Taxes don’t “generate”, in the sense of create, anything. Taxes extract revenue. I would have worded the headline
    “Chicago’s New Bag Tax Will Extract $13 Million, etc.”

    1. “Chicago’s New Bag Tax Will Steal $13 million, etc.”

  5. I just buy disposable bags in bulk. They cost less than a nickel apiece and are my own personal fuck you to the People’s Republic of CA.

  6. Chicago never lets an opportunity to be worse than NYC go to waste. At least our bullshit bag tax is (a) not in effect yet pending pushback and (b) going to enrich merchants, not the city. At least until they change it.

    1. Ugh, I don’t know about any of that. (Except that Chicago is probably the most nannyish, overregulated city in America. Low bar.)

      First of all, I am pretty much indifferent to whether the state extracts my nickel for this bullshit to give to itself or some private party (which they do because NYC cannot pass a tax without Albany). The two things I can say on behalf of the store owners is: (1) At least we know it won’t be increased as a revenue grab (though it may if it dissuades no one, as this article suggests). This is entirely pure, earnest bourgie green-theater “raising awareness” anti-poor bullshit, not a revenue grab. (2) The next most suspicious option, of course, would be a crony-capitalist giveaway–but, remarkably, New York store owners firmly oppose this measure for some reason. That alone makes me feel better that they’re getting it…

      1. …Also, I am not too optimistic about the future. Sanitation already quietly sent out notice to store owners that the fee would be implemented in February. I was already surprised that Albany, not known for their libertarianism, was so overwhelmingly supportive of pre-emption that they were able to scare City Hall in the first place, and I’m not sure they’ll be able to follow through. California voters’ approval of a statewide ban is now on the books; the store owners might switch their lobby when they realize California grocers were the biggest boosters of their law (“bans” are basically fees on the slightly thicker “reusable” bags the stores sell); the Assembly is still two-thirds Democrat; Senate Dems will be freshly pissed at the bill’s author, GOP-caucusing Brooklyn Dem Simcha Felder, for now being the vote that gives the GOP the majority even without the IDC; and Cuomo delusionally thinks he can get the Presidential nomination so he is acting accordingly. Two-thirds of both houses or a majority and Cuomo? I don’t know…

        Basically it will come down to which way NY Dems go on the “red-green” decision all Dems are now faced with after a Trump victory: Attempt a return to working-class politics; or retrench on “our values” and become even more defiantly identity politics/ prog-bourgie hobbyhorse.

  7. So basically the extra 2 cents that the retailer is “allowed” to keep (for bags that they already bought and were giving away for free) is an incentive to keep using plastic bags.

    The grocery store I shop at switched to paper when the bag ban first went into effect. The result is that I have to buy small trash bags for the bathrooms, and take out the trash immediately after I prepare meat. Otherwise the kitchen smells like rancid chicken after just a few hours. Those paper sacks get thrown in the trash like everything else as I have no use for them. All of my groceries are always double bagged. They take up an amazing amount of room, even when folded up. How is that supposed to reduce waste?

    1. You’re supposed to bring your own nasty germ-ridden bags, stupid.

      1. I have a few of those, but never remember to put them back in my car. Plus they are a huge pain in the ass to clean. Even at the store the workers have no problem putting my produce in, then putting a container of raw chicken or other meat right on top. They used to put meats in their own, separate bag.

        1. I figure I’ll get one of those mesh bags. Toss it in the laundry every week. Done.

          No f—–g way I’m paying for bags. There clerks everywhere around here double and triple bag everything, then the eggs go in another bag and the break in another bag. Screw that.

          1. *break

            This topic angers me so much I can’t tipe strait

            1. BREAD


            2. No worries. I have been lurking for years and only post a couple of times per month. This is a topic that my wife has straight up told me to not talk to her about because she is sick of hearing about it and how angry it makes me.

          2. I’ve never thought about those mesh bags. That isn’t a bad idea…

      2. Even if you wash them every time you shop, you’re gonna get some microbes growing as they sit in your car all summer getting nice and warm. I wouldn’t touch one of them with someone else’s hands.

        And I always love seeing a person (woman, mostly) with a cart of reuseable bags loading them into her 6-cylinder SUV. Yeah, she’s saving the environment.

        1. I particularly like seeing the person in front of me at the checkout throwing down a wadded up mass of obviously not-washed bags on the conveyer belt. Thanks for tainting the spot where my groceries are about to go, asswipe.

          1. Having been on the other end of that process for years before I found a real career, it amazes me how shitty other people treat the help.

    2. I’ll add that Home Depot and Target use those heavy duty plastic bags now, but you only get home with one or two of those since they are designed to hold 25 pounds, and some thing are just too large to even require a bag.

  8. It’s going to be interesting seeing grocery stores near the city border shutter because people went to the suburban grocer two blocks away. Should eventually result in more bad neighborhoods and increased homicides.

    1. The body bags better be re-usable.

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