“There’s a bad tree at the corner of—wait, excuse me, I misspoke. There are no ‘bad trees,’ just trees with bad litter in them.”
Melissa Elstein, a New York plastic bag snagger
New York is having a B.Y.O.B debate. Soon to be decided by the City Council, Intro 209 mandates a five-cent plastic bag fee. If passed, the ordinance will create a Bring Your Own Bag incentive. As one NYC councilwoman explained, after having to pay the ten-cent fee in San Francisco, she brought her own reusable bags when shopping. “The San Francisco experience made me see that the fee does have the potential to change your habits.”
The Plastic Bag Debate
Everywhere the mandate is debated, someone expresses concern that the fee is regressive because those who earn less lay out a higher proportion of their income. Opponents also remind us that plastic bags might not be biodegradable but 40 year-old hot dogs remain in land fills also (as surely do Twinkies). Meanwhile bag makers cite job losses and even environmentalists say that plastic bags compose a small part of our trash.
Still, It is tough to ignore the revenue a ban or fee generates and all of the plastic bags that tangle in trees, clog waterways and wind up in land fills. As a result, the pro-side of the plastic bag debate has been sufficiently persuasive to prevail in places that range from Portland, Oregon and Washington D.C. to Mumbai and Uganda. Last October the British said yes to a five-pence charge (about 8 cents) while in California, although Governor Brown signed a single-use plastic bag ban, opponents had enough signatures to get it on the ballot next November.
Our Bottom Line: Pigovian Taxes
First described by British economist Arthur Pigou, a tax levied on a good or service that creates a negative externality has a dual benefit. It diminishes how much we use the item that harms us while raising revenue that a community can use productively.
So if New York passes its 5-cent bag fee, we can hope that its Pigovian benefits outweigh its costs.