Sustainability | Ecotrope

PolitiFact: Bag ban's charge for paper isn't a tax

Ecotrope | Feb. 14, 2011 12:30 p.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:41 p.m.

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A paper grocery bag will cost 5 cents if a bill proposing a statewide plastic bag ban goes through. But the charge is not technically a tax, PolitiFact found, because the money wouldn't go to the state.

A paper grocery bag will cost 5 cents if a bill proposing a statewide plastic bag ban goes through. But the charge is not technically a tax, PolitiFact found, because the money wouldn't go to the state.

PolitiFact Oregon has researched the claim that the state’s proposed plastic bag ban comes with a tax on paper bags. The bill would impose a 5 cent charge for paper bags at grocery stores – an extra incentive to bring your own.

But PolitiFact concluded the charge is not technically a tax in Oregon because the funds it will generate will not be going to state coffers. That is part of Oregon’s official definition of a tax, which also makes several other not-so-optional charges officially NOT taxes – like the recycling deposit on bottled beverages and the “public purpose charge” on electricity and gas bills. From PolitiFact:

“The state doesn’t get any of that money. Grocers can spend the money however they want. And shoppers — and this is critical — don’t need to pay a nickel for a paper bag. They are free to bring in their own carrying devices, from gym bags to multi-use plastic bags to previously used paper bags. There is no constitutional right to a disposable sack.

Anna Richter Taylor, a lobbyist representing Hilex, argues that for Oregonians who have never before had to pay for a supermarket bag, this is a tax. “The Legislature can call it what they want, but government — and not grocers — is forcing consumers to buy a reusable bag or a paper bag,” she said.

PolitiFact Oregon doesn’t like paying for something that once was free. But remember, television used to be free. Bottled drinks were once 5 cents cheaper. Utility companies used to not charge 3 percent extra for energy programs. Frankly, we think it’s easier to avoid the 5 cent charge on bags than it is to bypass bottled drinks or the public purpose charge on utility bills.”

Also interesting from this story: Anna Richter Taylor, formerly a spokeswoman for Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, is now a lobbyist representing Hilex. I got an e-mail from Claudia Holwill at Edelman representing plastic bag manufacturer Hilex. Here’s some of what she wrote:

“Hilex Poly and industry leaders agree that protecting the environment is essential, and it strives to do its part to increase the frequency and ease of plastic bag recycling through initiatives such as their nation-wide Bag2Bag program. Hilex also believes there are other ways to help the environment than banning a safe, legal and American-made product. …

As anti-plastic bag legislation continues to be proven ineffective in the United States, Hilex is working with policy makers to keep jobs in the plastic bag manufacturing and recycling industries and to preserve consumer freedom and convenience, particularly in a time of economic difficulty.”

She also pointed to this post from a columnist in Washington, D.C., to explain how banning plastic bags hurts the economy (D.C. has a year-old 5-cent citywide tax on paper and plastic bags). In short, critics say taxing bags causes people to buy less and ultimately result in cuts to jobs and wages (that’s in addition to the hit to bag manufacturers). Hence, the debate over whether Oregon’s plastic bag ban results in a tax on paper bags.

One thing I will note here is that I might avoid really big grocery shopping trips if it means I will have to bring five or six reusable bags with me (I just don’t own that many). I don’t know whether that will mean I actually buy less overall.

The other point this brings up is one I’ve noted before. There was a thought-provoking story in the Wall Street Journal awhile back that argued it wasn’t the 5-cent tax that was deterring people from using plastic bags in D.C. (the ban cut bag use down from 68 million to 11 million bags per quarter); Rather, it was the guilt associated with asking for a bag. I’m just going to give you a big chunk of the story here. Tell me if you agree:

“Washington, D.C., imposed a five-cent tax on every disposable bag, paper or plastic, handed out at any retail outlet in the city that sells food, candy or liquor, effective Jan 1. But more important than the extra cost was something more subtle: No one got bags automatically anymore. Instead, shoppers had to ask for them—right in front of their fellow customers.

The result? Retail outlets that typically use 68 million disposable bags per quarter handed out 11 million bags in the first quarter of this year and fewer than 13 million bags in the second quarter, according to the district’s Office of Tax and Revenue. That may help explain why volunteers for the city’s annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup day in mid-April pulled 66% fewer plastic bags from the Anacostia River than they did last year.

District Councilman Tommy Wells doesn’t believe it is the nominal cost that’s keeping shoppers from using bags, but rather the expectation—made clear in a very public way in every transaction—that they could make do without. “It’s more important,” he concludes, “to get in their heads than in their pocketbooks.”

Studies dating back at least three decades clearly show the power of social norms. We tend to ascribe our actions to more high-minded motives, or to practical concerns about money. But at its core, our behavior often boils down to that old mantra: Monkey see, monkey do.

Researchers are now learning how to harness that instinct to nudge us to go green.

It’s not easy. Though about two-thirds of Americans tell pollsters they are active in or sympathetic with the environmental movement, it has proved tough to get the average consumer to make even relatively simple changes, like using energy-efficient light bulbs or caulking drafty windows.

Government agencies, private utilities and nonprofit groups have tried changing behavior by giving people more information, or by dangling financial incentives, such as rebates. And these approaches work for some households. But psychologists and behavioral economists are increasingly concluding that for the masses, a simpler, cheaper approach may be in order. It can include new laws and taxes, as in D.C., but it doesn’t have to.

The magic ingredient: Peer pressure.”

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