NYC May Begin Taxing Plastic Bag Usage

by Tim Fulton on November 11, 2008

Image: currybet

Besides the incandescent lightbulb, the plastic bag is the number one target of environmentalists as flagrant wastefulness. Not only do plastic bags usually end up in the trash, but they do so in large quantities and are made out of virtually non-biodegradable plastic. On top of this is the fact that they are rarely necessary. Most of the time you use a plastic bag you could easily have brought some of your own bags instead (I tend to leave a few in my car just in case I ever forget).

That’s why New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg is looking to actively fight plastic bag usage by adding a 6 cent charge for each bag used. This plan mimics similar policies in place in Ireland and Australia that charge consumers for the bags they use. In Ireland, the tax (which is more than NYC’s proposed tax at 33 cents) has reduced plastic bag usage 94%.

However, this brings up the age-old debate: Which is better, taxation or prohibition? Obviously we want people to use less plastic bags, but how should we encourage consumers to be more environmentally friendly? Let’s look at some of the pros and cons:


  • Pro: High taxes reduce consumption greatly
  • Pro: If you really need a bag, you can still get one
  • Con: Tax revenue disappears quickly as customers change their behavior
  • Con: Low taxes may not reduce plastic use enough


  • Pro: No one will be using any bags
  • Pro: Consumers won’t face additional taxation
  • Con: If you forget a bag or make an impluse purchase, you may be out of luck
  • Con: Popular support for this option may be low since nobody likes losing choice

What do you think? Is this a good plan for NYC? Should the tax be higher or should there be no tax and a total ban? Let us know in the comments!

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1 Mark Richards November 11, 2008 at 4:49 pm

Honestly, it won’t matter in the slightest to me. I refuse plastic bags the deli and bring cloth bags to the grocery store with me. I’m always a fan of choice, however, and I think the tax is a sensible plan. You never know when you might forget your bags, or not have enough so choice is a good idea.

2 GenKreton November 11, 2008 at 9:13 pm

Ever since I’ve lived on my own I am inseparable from my backpack which conveniently may be emptied and used as the perfect transportation medium for food while I walk or cycle. In addition I usually keep two of those cloth gym bags bunched up and they can be hung off the side of the backpack for excess storage, albeit with a bit of a hobo look.

The only problem I’ve had not using plastic bags is that they made such good bags for small trash cans, so occasionally I still ask for them. I assume many other people use them for bathroom and office trash cans, too?

3 Bert McDert November 12, 2008 at 1:30 pm

Additional Con re: taxes – the dad-blamed gubment gets that money. Which is at least partially offset by the fact that the “con” of that revenue drying up quickly is not really a con at all. The tax wouldn’t be for the purpose of generating revenue so much as social engineering. A classic sin tax if ever oh ever a sin tax there was.

The other con there is problematic too: who’s to say how much is enough? And are we supposed to assume that falling short of that goal is worse than doing nothing? Not to mention that the level of the tax could be set according to economic estimates of a given level’s effect on consumption, then adjusted as needed. Taxes are far more flexible that way than bans.

There are ways to mitigate against the harm done by providing government with more of our money with which to oppress us, too: perhaps a ballot referendum dictating that all proceeds of this tax will go to subsidizing local produce co-ops so that trips to the megamart for 50 bags worth of stuff at a time will become less necessary, perhaps? If that money can be diverted to something empowering to local communities, then it might almost be okay that it has to grease the palms of the Beast in the process.

It seems to me that there’s a definite balance to be struck between preventing unconscientious consumers from filling the oceans with useless yet persistent plastic and preventing the further erosion of individual liberty at the hands of a voraciously power-hungry government. An outright ban would give our masters total control over our choices (as in eliminating yet another one, albeit an often irresponsible one), while a tax could at least theoretically preserve citizens’ rights to choose so long as they are willing to pay for the social cost inherent in that choice.

And of course the more local the municipality levying the tax, the less it contributes to federal hegemony and homogenization. So for a city to take this upon itself is preferable, but even better would be a borough or even a neighborhood. To the extent that the entity imposing the tax is accountable to its constituents, I’m tentatively for it.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t feel the least bit sorry for the manufacturers of these abominations if they WERE banned from operating at all. I just, again, would prefer they be banned by the people rather than by our mutual enemy the state. So basically any merit that a ban would have, a coordinated guerrilla decommissioning of plastic bag plants would have as well, and without the downside of further disempowering people vis a vis the state.

Just sayin.

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