Plastic bag manufacturers have mounted a particularly galling advertising campaign to stop California from implementing its new $0.25 per bag tax on disposable grocery bags.Called “Stop the Bag Tax,” the campaign appeals to the burgeoning “consumer panic” over spiraling prices for food and fuel. “Food, Gas, and now THIS!” screams their site.
As if the cost of gas and food isn’t enough… politicians now want to charge you $.25 on every grocery bag. That adds up to about $400 per family per year!
Well, of course it does, if the consuming morons just keep consuming like good little consumers. But if they are paying any attention at all, they might just buy a half-dozen canvas or hemp grocery bags for three or four dollars apiece and bring them to the store. That would be a lot cheaper for them, and accomplish the intent of the law. (Switching to paper is not a solution, since paper manufacturing is just about as resource intensive, and even more polluting than plastic manufacture).
Is this about changing behavior? Of course it is. Some libertarians and resource cornucopians might cast it as an issue of personal freedom–the freedom to use and dispose of as many plastic bags as one cares to. Maybe like some sort of God-given right.
Now before we go too far into condemning this viewpoint, I have to say that given certain circumstances, I might be compelled to agree with them. I would agree if the consumer were paying the entire cost of the transaction. But they don’t. In our economy of subsidized energy and waste disposal, consumers rarely pay for the externalities that stem from their purchases. In the case of plastic bags, these externalities include hidden costs of both production and disposal of literally trillions of bags. They include but are not limited to:
- Costs of depletion of natural gas (already past-peak in North America).
- Costs of CO2 emissions from the energy used to create the bag.
- Disposal costs for the vast majority of bags not recycled (only about 1% are).
- Costs of cleaning up bag litter (featherweight bags have a nasty habit of escaping from almost any container or landfill).
- Costs to the marine ecosystem of the continent-sized floating plastic islands (largely made from plastic bags).
If we lived in a sustainable society which planned ahead even a little bit, we would incorporate these costs into the cost of products. Plastic bags would therefore already be much more expensive, and we would probably use far fewer of them. Markets can only drive correct decisions by consumers when they incorporate all the relevant information. Giving away plastic bags at grocery stores is just about the worst idea you could possibly come up with–if your goal is sustainability.
However, if your goal is to enrich a few large chemical companies who manufacture bags, it’s brilliant. From the Stop The Bag Tax site:
Sponsored by the Progressive Bag Affiliates of the American Chemistry Council and The California Film Extruders and Converters Association
The whole commotion sounds like a death rattle from a bunch of people who stand to lose big from a reduction in plastic bag usage, right?
We wouldn’t need a “bag tax” if the markets were functioning properly. But giving away free bags is a craven institutionalized deception at the most fundamental level. It feeds consumers fantasies of “out-of-sight-out-of-mind” production and disposal. As the Austin Powers character said about the free-love of the ’60s and ’70s, “a consequence-free environment.” But this suppression of true costs has got to come to an end if we are to ever make good decisions about resource allocation. And we have to if we are going to successfully share this planet with over 7 billion people.
Consumers do not need to behave like sheep. That mentality is demeaning and dehumanizing. There would be no guilt involved in consumption if the whole process weren’t based so strongly on deception. We are all consumers. And we are not that stupid–we’ve just been lied to. Our only fault is that we’ve willingly believed the lie–because it has been convenient. But those times of blissful ignorance are coming to an end. We will make the right choices when given the right information.
A $0.25 tax on bags is not a government money grab, it’s a price signal. Ideally, if the law accomplishes its desired result, no taxes would be collected at all–since smart consumers wouldn’t be using or disposing of these pointless bags.