Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Who Should Pay For Bags?

I wanted to say a couple of things about San Francisco's proposal to charge consumers 17 cents for shopping bags.

It's provoking the usual hysterical outbursts from right-wing scaremongers, who see the plan as the End of Civilization...but those people are stupid or corrupt, and their bad-faith arguments are not worth addressing. However, there are some rational concerns about the proposal.

Here's one complaint about the planned surcharge:

Under the grocery bag proposal, there would be no refunds for shoppers who return bags and thus no motivation for people to paw through trash bins plucking bags out of the waste stream.
That's a good point, if only because it demonstrates how much our recycling systems relies on dirt-poor human scavengers. But I have a feeling the author is confusing rewards for customers who reuse their own bags, with recycling rewards for people who pull bags out of trash cans. You can't compare the two, let alone conflate them. Also, many plastic bags either aren't recyclable, or aren't marked as recyclable, or aren't accepted by curbside recycling programs even if they are recyclable.

Here's another potential problem:
[T]he bag fee could be regressive, hitting lower-income consumers hardest.
A reasonable concern, but as someone who grew up well below the poverty line, I have to say that poor people are pretty goddamn adaptable, and will do whatever they can to save money. The middle and upper classes will be the ones most resistant to change, which is why a marketing-based approach, like the one I'll describe in a moment, is a good one.

Here's a complaint from grocers that I think is valid:
"All are very disturbed that supermarkets are the target when others that deal in plastic bags or paper bags are not subject to the tax," says Paul Smith, a vice president with the California Grocers Association.
That's a good point; grocers are not the only source of plastic and paper bag waste, but their customers are being held financially responsible for the disposal of all bags. I might prefer to see the manufacturers themselves surcharged; in other words, a bag manufacturer would charge stores an extra $1.70 per hundred bags; this would give all retailers an incentive to cut down on use.

Smith goes on to make an exceptionally silly argument, which suggests that he has no actual grasp of the situation:
He says bags are included in the cost of groceries and cost supermarkets less than 1 cent each for plastic and several pennies for paper.
That's just foolish. The issue is not what supermarkets pay for bags, obviously; the issue is what taxpayer-funded municipalities pay for having them in the waste stream.

Here's one way to handle the situation, if you're a grocer: have cloth bags made with your logo on it, and give them away to anyone who spends a certain amount on groceries. Offer special promotions and discounts for people who use them, sort of like a rewards card. Make people want to use them, and reap the rewards of a "green" brand image and consumer goodwill. (It's really pathetic...we're supposedly a nation of entrepreneurial and marketing geniuses, and yet our business leaders consistently run screaming from opportunities.)

The article ends with a description of how the city arrived at the cost of 17 cents per bag:
San Francisco supermarkets hand out 50 million bags a year, 90 percent plastic and 10 percent paper. Here is an estimate of what disposing of bags costs the city.

-- Recycling and compost contamination. Removal of bags from the recycling and composting streams, clearing machinery jams, and contamination of recycled and composted materials results in $1.09 million in added costs or lost sales. Cost per bag: 2.2 cents.

-- Collection and disposal. Collecting and disposing of bags costs $3.6 million annually. Cost per bag: 7.2 cents.

-- Street cleaning. Removing bags from city streets costs $2.6 million a year. Cost per bag: 5.2 cents.

-- Future landfill liability. Potential remediation and processing costs of bags in city landfills is $1.2 million annually. Cost per bag: 2.4 cents.

-- Total cost per bag: 17 cents.
Is that accurate? Probably not. For instance, one doubts that the cost of removing bags from city streets could accurately be extracted from the cost of removing all trash from the streets. Beyond that, I'd guess that all of these figures are pretty inaccurate, and that some of the basic assumptions are flat-out wrong (for instance, the assumption that there's no inefficiency or fraud padding out the costs).

That said, I also suspect that the figure of 45,000,000 plastic bags per year is conservative; San Francisco has a population of roughly 800,000 people, so that would boil down to a little more than one plastic bag per person, per week. Accurate or not, that's a staggering amount of useless plastic to be putting in the waste stream (paper bags are at least as bad as plastic, but I don't have time to get into that right now). The real number of bags is probably a good deal higher. I've seen clerks at drug stores put packs of gum in bags; I've even had them argue with me when I tell them I don't want a bag. If we were to assume that every person in San Francisco, on average, gets handed two plastic bags per week, which seems far more likely, we're talking about roughly 83 million bags per year. To assume that it costs taxpayers nothing to deal with this volume of waste is either willfully ignorant, dishonest, or insane.

The most serious question raised by the 17-cent fee, and Pigouvian taxes in general, is whether the agencies that collect them will actually use them to mitigate environmental problems, instead of setting up yet another slush fund. Pigouvian taxes only work in systems where there's transparency and accountability, and there's precious little of either in American government. However, that applies equally to traditional forms of waste management, which have been a veritable omphalos of corruption since the 19th century.

Ultimately, I support San Francisco's legislation, primarily because it's prompting public debate about externalities, which is something that doesn't happen often enough. People can argue that 17 cents per bag is too much, or not enough, but they can't argue that there's no cost at all. I'm very happy to have a public debate over what the actual cost is, and who should pay it; I see it as another Lakoffian "slippery slope" issue.

Full disclosure: I haven't used grocery bags in ages. I have a few cloth bags, and clerks are more than happy to use them. It's perfectly easy and convenient, and it actually leaves me with more room in my house. (The space under my sink used to be filled with bags and bags of bags; now, I can use that space for other things.)

UPDATE: Re my suggestion about cloth bags issued by the grocer, I don't think I made myself clear enough. What I'm suggesting is cloth bags with barcodes, that are scanned at check-out to give discounts, just like a rewards card. That way, everyone comes out ahead...less plastic and paper in the waste stream, discounts for consumers, and tons of point-of-purchase market data for the retailers.


Anonymous said...

Cloth bags are an excellent idea, and there are many online and otherwise sites to choose from.

For what it's worth, I lived in Oslo, Norway for six months in the winter of 1988-1989 (the warmest winter up to then on record, which disappointed me enormously; if only I knew then what I know now).

Even then stores charged customers for bags, 10 urde or something like that. People everywhere carried *everything* in their plastic bags. They were great plastic bags!

WHT said...

Here's one way to handle the situation, if you're a grocer: have cloth bags made with your logo on it, and give them away to anyone who spends a certain amount on groceries. The Champion store that I visited in Normandy had that gimmick. Those French..

Another interesting tidbit from "The amount of petroleum used to make one plastic bag would drive a car about 115 metres. The 6.9 billion plastic check-out bags we use every year is enough to drive a car 800 million kilometres or nearly 20,000 times around the world."

joshowitz5 said...

Here's one way to handle the situation, if you're a grocer: have cloth bags made with your logo on it, and give them away to anyone who spends a certain amount on groceries.My grocery store in Brooklyn, NY does this. If you spend over $100, you get a cloth bag. We've got lots, and we use them for all kinds of things, but not for grocery shopping. But I would pay $0.17/bag if I had to (which would add about $17 to my total). I use those bags to clean up after my dog, carry my lunch to work, garbage can liners for those small baskets in the den and the bathroom, packing material, etc. Plastic bags are as useful as quarters in NYC, which is to say, more useful than you would expect.

There is, however, one other idea you missed. Cardboard boxes that normally would be "broken down" in the back could be given to people with a significant amount of groceries to use instead of bags. The cardboard could then be recycled by the customer, nobody is adding to the waste stream, and you can pack your car easier without worrying about the bags falling over and letting all your stuff roll around your trunk/hatchback/backseat/bus floor. Lots of groceries in my area do this as well. It seems to work pretty well.

Phila said...

Joshowitz, re the cardboard boxes, I agree. There's a market in SF that does's very convenient, especially when you have to fit $200 worth of groceries into your car.

I know that plastic bags are useful ("useless" was the wrong word - I meant unnecessary), but as WHT points out, they represent a really colossal waste of resources that we simply can't afford. We tend to think of oil - and oil wars - strictly in terms of gasoline, the associated price of transporting goods, and so on...transportation-related stuff, basically. But plastics are an incredibly oil-intensive product (in addition to their disposal issues).

Here's where I'm coming from: we know that our votes don't count, at this point. We know protests don't accomplish anything...they don't faze BushCo at all. As I see it, that leaves changing our patterns of consumption as pretty much our penultimate option. It's hard to do, no doubt about becomes second nature eventually, but it's not easy to get to that point. My wife thinks of this stuff automatically, not least because she works at a wildlife hospital where she constantly sees animals who've been maimed or killed by plastic bags and six-pack holders. I'm not quite there yet...I still have to make a conscious effort to think about it. That's one of the reasons I wrote about it here, actually...just to clarify my own thinking.

Robert Martinson II said...

In Canada there is a chain of stores called "The Real Canadian Superstore" that encourages the reusal of plastic bags, but they also sell green plastic crates to use. They can be used to hold about anything. They are sturdier than cardboard, the bottom doesn't fall out, and those people short on storage space can use them as spare boxes or to create shelving units. They had nylon handles on them which made them easy to carry around. I spent four and a half years in Canada and loved going to "Superstore."

Phila said...

That's right...the Superstore! Used to live in Toronto, but I forgot all about them. It's a spin-off of Loblaw's, isn't it?

And just as a general comment, re my suggestion about cloth bags issued by the grocer, I don't think I made myself clear enough. What I'm suggesting is cloth bags with barcodes, that are scanned at check-out to give discounts, just like a rewards card. That way, everyone comes out ahead...less plastic in the waste stream, discounts for consumers, and tons of point-of-purchase market data for the retailers.

cutiger95 said...

Tell you what compost is one of the most important aspects of maintaining the environment. It benefits both the area around you and your gardening capabilities.

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