By Quentin Fottrell
The front page of The Wall Street Journal today carries a piece about a lawyer in San Francisco, Stephen Joseph, a British native and registered Democrat who once formed a green patrol to clean litter in his neighborhood. But he has since become an unlikely defender of single-use plastic grocery bags, abhorred by many environmentalists.
Joseph’s adopted city of San Francisco led the way in 2007 by banning plastic bags at large grocery stores, and many other U.S. cities have followed in its path. Last year, Washington D.C. introduced a $0.05 tax on plastic bags, a move designed to give consumers choice and encourage use of paper and canvass bags, or re-use plastic.
Defenders of the plastic bag – especially those who support jobs in the manufacturing industry – favor recycling and education programs, and say additional taxes will only add to rising grocery bills. According to the American Chemistry Council, plastic bag recycling is on the rise with nearly 855 million pounds recycled in 2009, an increase of 31% since 2005. Incidentally, Joseph runs savetheplasticbag.com, which is not connected to or funded by the American Chemistry Council.
There is also a worldwide movement to ban these bags. Italy introduced a total ban on them last January. In 2002, Ireland introduced a tax on plastic bags. I lived there when the government introduced a €0.15 ($0.21) tax on plastic bags. They used to blow down the sidewalks like tumbleweed, but people still did not like paying for them.
I frequently witnessed sales assistants in shops being berated by customers when they were asked to cough up the money for the bags. It didn’t help that Ireland’s tax on single-use plastic bags was raised to €0.22 ($0.30) in 2007 and, last year, one department store actually refused to pay the tax, withdrew the single-use bags entirely and upped the price of the reusable plastic bags. That said, plastic bag use in Ireland plummeted and Irish people soon came to recycle or use paper bags, and accept the tax.
If a plastic bag tax was proposed in your city, would you fight it?