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Debate: Plastic Bags -- Tax or Ban Is the Only Question

Jun 7, 2010 – 5:03 AM
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Erik Assadourian

Special to AOL News
(June 7) -- Here's a thought experiment: If you were a policymaker, which would you choose?

A ban on plastic bags that will anger a significant percentage of voters while reducing plastic bag use almost entirely (over several years), but possibly increase overall ire at the government's meddling to "save the environment."

Or a tax on plastic bags, which will reduce plastic bag usage 85 to 95 percent but maintain the illusion of free choice and, as an added bonus, generate revenue to address other pollution and over-consumption issues (translation: help pay for additional government meddling to save the environment).

Opposing View:
This is a classic case of perennial meddlers looking to boss people around for no good reason, says James M. Taylor of the Heartland Institute.
Both of these are examples of "choice editing," an important and routine role of government since the days of village councils. Recent examples of choice editing abound, from taxing cigarettes to fining people for not wearing their seat belts.

And if we are going to stabilize the climate and bring about a sustainable society, editing out ecologically damaging products and behaviors will have to be an essential role of government.

Certainly, choice editing has been used for curbing environmental damage for years. Banning CFCs and capping sulfur emissions are two examples that come to mind. But many other government efforts actually stimulate consumption -- such as generous subsidies for fossil fuels and roads, and minimal support for public services like mass transit systems.

These government incentives and disincentives bias Americans' preference toward driving instead of taking the bus and living in the suburbs rather than in walkable communities. Yes, we've moved beyond using CFCs in our hair spray, but we still have a long way to go to live a sustainable lifestyle.

Addressing the plastic bag issue is a great opportunity to edit citizens' choices in one more way that favors sustainability and one that'll have an effect on a daily basis.

So the question is not if governments should deal with plastic bags but how.

The case of Washington, D.C., is an interesting one. In 2009, D.C. residents were using more than 22 million plastic bags per month. Since a 5 cent tax per bag was imposed Jan. 1, 2010, District residents are now using just 3 million plastic bags per month.

And that's with just a 5 cent tax. Imagine what a 25 cent bag tax would produce.

While maintaining the freedom of choice and the convenience of bags if you forget your bag and really need one, it would cut out nearly all plastic bag usage. After all, those against government interference certainly don't want to give it extra taxes to do its diabolical work of trying to curb pollution, do they?

As an added bonus, this relatively modest D.C. tax raised $150,000 in its first month, which will help support clean-up efforts for the very polluted Anacostia River.

But the key point is that in a culture like America where freedom is deemed sacred (even though governments, business and the media regularly shape our behaviors and thoughts), preserving the perception of free choice is an important part of any successful legislation.

So while a plastic bag ban might be better in some countries -- like China, Kenya or, yes, San Francisco -- a significant plastic bag tax might be the best way to go in California.

Ultimately, no matter which bill California passes, it'll be a good day for Earth, and thus a good day for us humans who inhabit it.

Erik Assadourian is a senior fellow at Worldwatch Institute and director of State of the World 2010: Transforming Cultures: From Consumerism to Sustainability.

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Filed under: Opinion
Tagged: plastic bags
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