Do Bans on Plastic Grocery Bags Save Cities Money?

Policy Reports | Energy and Natural Resources | Taxes

No. 353
Wednesday, December 11, 2013
by H. Sterling Burnett

Consumers choose plastic bags far more often than paper or reusable bags to carry their purchases. Compared to paper and reusable bags, plastic bags are lightweight, strong, flexible and moisture resistant. In addition, they are easy to store and reusable for multiple purposes. Despite these characteristics and their popularity, a growing number of municipalities and some states are enacting laws aimed at reducing the use of plastic (and sometimes paper) grocery bags. The laws range from outright bans to taxes. Advocates have given a number of justifications for placing restrictions on consumers’ use of carry-out plastic bags. These include concerns about the scarce resources used to create the bags, environmental harms when they are disposed of improperly, the visible blight of roadside litter, and the cost of disposing or recycling them.

However, an examination of the bag bans and budgets for litter collection and waste disposal in San Francisco, San Jose, and the City and County of Los Angeles, Calif.; Washington, D.C.; and Brownsville and Austin, Texas, shows no evidence of a reduction in costs attributable to reduced use of plastic bags.

San Francisco. In 2007, San Francisco became the first city in the nation to ban common, thin-film plastic carryout bags at large grocery stores and pharmacies. In 2012, the city amended the original ban to include all retail stores and food establishments, and added a 10-cent charge on all paper and reusable bags.

Prior to the ban San Francisco City Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi estimated that bag disposal and lost revenue cost the city and the private waste disposal and recycling contractor at least 17 cents per bag, or $8.49 million annually. However, his estimate lumps paper and plastic bags together, whereas the vast majority of collection and disposal costs are due to paper bags. Plastic bags amount to less than 0.5 percent of the waste stream, and a similarly miniscule amount of landfill space. Paper bags are six times heavier and take up 10 times more space than plastic bags.Thus, plastic bags should be responsible for no more than $900,000 of San Francisco’s annual collection and disposal costs, and $300,000 of the landfill liability.

In addition, in contrast to the state and local studies cited by the city supervisorsoffice, a nationwide study found that plastic bags make up only 0.6 percent of litter; thus, the cost of clearing plastic bags in San Francisco should be less than $1.3 million.

San Jose. In 2011, San Jose, Calif., became the largest city at that time to adopt a ban, approving one of the strictest bag bans in the nation, effective January 2012. San Jose banned plastic bags from both large and small retailers, excepting only restaurants, nonprofits, social organizations and retailers that use plastic or paper bags for such things as fresh produce, meat or bulk goods. Though some argued the bag ban would save the city money by reducing litter collection costs, environmental arguments dominated the debate, there was no explicit estimate of the expected savings, and data on the ban is still relatively incomplete.

However, the city council adopted budgets that increased spending from about $95.5 million for the 2009-2010 budget year to $110.4 million in 2012-2013 (the ban’s first year), a 15.6 percent rise. The proposed budget for 2013-2014 is $105.3 million, a 4.6 percent decline, but still considerably higher than before the ban.

County and City of Los Angeles, California. A November 2010 Los Angeles County, Calif., ordinance outlawed retail use of thin-film polyethylene bags. Los Angeles County faced significant spending cuts during the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 budget years of more than $175 million and $35 million, respectively. Budget cuts did not extend to solid waste collection or disposal. Spending for solid waste rose 30.17 percent from the budget year 2006-2007 to 2011-2012, and projected spending rose 5.9 percent from 2011-2012 to the adopted budget for 2012-2013.

In June 2013, the City of Los Angeles followed suit by approving an ordinance banning plastic bags, effective January 2014 for large stores and July 2014 for smaller stores. The law requires customers to either use their own reusable bags or pay 10 cents per paper bag.

Brownsville, Texas. On December 15, 2009, one of the poorest cities in Texas became the first city to place restrictions on plastic carry out bags. Since January 5, 2011, most retailers have been prohibited from providing free plastic bags (or paper bags below a certain weight and without handles), and may only offer reusable bags. However, there are a number of exceptions and any retailer could continue to provide plastic bags if they collect a surcharge of $1.00 per transaction from consumers and remit it to the city.

The revenue generated by the program has exceeded its expenses, including spending for litter control programs, by more than $1 million. Subsequently, the city decided that it will keep the fee, rather than ban the bags altogether. Brownsville evidently realized plastic bags are a source of income to be encouraged rather than a cost to be avoided.

Brownsville’s overall solid waste expenditures rose 90.72 percent from 2004 to 2012. Despite the bag fee, Brownsville’s solid waste revenues and expenses have risen in both of the first two years of the ban. Brownsville’s garbage collection fees and waste disposal expenses have seen extreme swings, with a general upward trend but no discernible pattern.

Washington, D.C. In June 2009, the Washington, D.C., city council passed Bill 18-150, the Anacostia River Clean-Up and Protection Act of 2009. Commonly known as the “Bag Tax,” the law imposed a 5-cent tax on paper and plastic grocery bags, which took effect on January 1, 2010. The main impetus for the bill was to reduce the amount of litter in the Anacostia River and its tributaries. The tax applied to both paper and plastic bags, which still had to be 100 percent recyclable. Unrecyclable single-use bags were banned outright and the law specified what counted as recyclable, so as to rule out common single-use plastic bags.

Washington claimed that plastic bag use had declined by 80 percent, but an independent analysis indicated the likely decline was closer to 67 percent. However, for the first two years of the program, 60 percent and 52 percent, respectively, of establishments inspected by the district did not comply with the ordinance. As a result, if only 40 percent to 48 percent of the regulated establishments actually charge the tax, it is unlikely Washington’s plastic bag use has declined by the amount claimed.

Spending on public space cleaning increased dramatically in 2010 (the first year of the tax), but it declined 33 percent in 2011. There was a more modest decline in costs for solid waste collection and removal, and sanitation disposal. However the data indicates the reductions stem almost entirely from substantial federal and local budget cuts.

Austin, Texas. The city of Austin, Texas, estimated that residents use approximately 263 million plastic bags per year, costing the city approximately $850,000 annually in litter control. This figure makes the costs of litter control of plastic bags just 3.2 cents per bag, considerably less than San Francisco’s estimate of 5.2 cents per bag, and a small part of Austin’s overall waste disposal and recycling costs.

In the cities that have adopted bag bans, fees or taxes, there is little evidence so far that banning or taxing plastic bags will reduce waste disposal costs and save money. Those who make this claim must provide evidence to back it up, but they have rarely attempted to do so, and when they have, the evidence has proven questionable at best.

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