Comments on the Proposed "Green Fee"

July 14, 2008

To the Seattle City Council:

My name is Peter Nickerson. I am part of a small group of economists who make up a non-profit that focuses on economics and public policy. I am also the principal in a Seattle-based economics consulting firm and a former Seattle University economics professor. We were particularly intrigued, and I dare-say excited when we saw the proposal now being considered by the council that would dramatically reduce plastic bag use through a tax. For over thirty years, two of us have spent considerable time in the classroom in our university Resource and Environmental economics courses helping students understand how tremendously useful these sorts of taxes can be when we are trying to control or eliminate certain types of pollution. I should also note that we are also devoted environmentalists, fishermen, birders and hikers. We own Priuses, keep bees, garden organically and live in the Northwest because of our love of the outdoors.

The City Council public comment meeting on this issue on July 8 was wonderful city theatre. There were heartfelt speeches about the evils of plastic, a ballad by the singing grannies waving reusable bags, two evil bag monsters parading around the room, tuba playing, tie-dyed clothing and even tearful moms with babies in their arms. The mood in the council chambers was much more Fremont Street Fair than a serious discussion of the ramifications of a Plastax in Seattle. It will be extremely difficult for the Council and mayor to do anything other than implement the bag tax and the Styrofoam ban in the current political climate. Given the cost of these policies (over $400 million for consumers over the next 30 years) and the small environmental gains, if any, that will result from the tax and ban, we think it might be useful for the Council and the public to at least consider some of the issues that make these policies less attractive here in Seattle than they might be in other places.

Numerous jurisdictions have approved either outright bans or taxes on plastic shopping bags. Though most of you are familiar with Ireland’s experience, other countries have banned or put in place taxes to reduce or eliminate bag use. They include South Africa, Uganda, Kenya, Australia, Bangladesh, China, Bhutan, and India. Italy and France have proposed outright bans on “non-biodegradable” plastic bags.

In virtually all of these instances the primary and really overwhelming reason for the tax or ban on plastic bags has been made very clear… to stop litter. In the African countries, Ireland, and China, plastic bag litter had reached truly epic proportions. In Ireland and South Africa plastic bags were nick-named the “national flower” and in China, “the white pollution”. The extent of the problem, especially in China and the African countries, is hard to imagine here in Seattle where littering is simply not a serious public problem, largely because the vast majority of Seattleites choose not to litter. To get a good idea of how bad it was in these countries imagine every man, woman and child in Seattle going outdoors right now and throwing a plastic grocery bag into the air. They would be everywhere. That’s the sort of problem these countries faced.

In India and Bangladesh the plastic bag litter caused other problems. These bags were responsible for clogging drains and contributing to floods. In India they were blamed for the death of sacred cows who evidently found them edible. We just don’t have clogged drains and, so far, no dead cows.

We don’t have a serious plastic bag litter problem either. Litter exists, but plastic bag litter is almost non-existent. The study commissioned by the city says that the proposed tax will decrease plastic bag litter by 42 percent. Forty-two percent of what? In most places in the city finding a littered plastic grocery bag is difficult if not impossible. Try it. Since June 1, I have taken over 30 five-mile walks along Lake Washington, through the city’s parks and around Seattle’s streets. I have seen six littered plastic grocery bags and two of those had been pulled from a trash can by crows. We simply don’t have the litter problem other places have needed to fix.

So why impose a Plastax in Seattle? One possible reason is that by eliminating plastic bags we will see a marked decrease in oil consumption and energy use and resource use in general because those bags won’t be produced anymore. This argument is spurious at best. We need to think of the other uses we have for these bags. We use them to carry groceries home, line our waste baskets and garbage cans, distribute our garden zucchini to our neighbors, bring lunches to work and school, carry our gym clothes and wet swim suits, and pick up after our dogs. The tax will unambiguously cause us to substitute away from the taxed grocery bags towards more intensive use of other bags and containers whose production uses significant amounts of oil-based synthetic fibers and plastics. The evidence in Ireland shows a significant increase in the use of other types of plastic bags since the implementation of their tax. For instance, the consumption of trash can liners (also made of plastic) doubled as a result of the tax.

In addition to trash can liners, we are going to buy reusable grocery bags, probably by the millions. Most of these, including the ones sold in our local grocery stores, the bags waved by the singing grannies at the council meeting, and the eight in my kitchen are made from woven or flat sheet fabric polypropylene (type 5 plastic). This type of plastic is extremely durable, but unlike the plastic bags they will replace (type 2 plastic), it is not generally recyclable (Seattle City Recycling doesn’t recycle it). It is clearly not biodegradable. Those millions of poly bags may last a long time, but when they wear out or get stained and need to be thrown away, they will end up in the landfill. Moreover, each one of those wonderfully durable, polypropylene bags requires between 100 times (not percent) and 300 times (not percent) more resources (raw material, energy, etc.) to produce! It is highly questionable whether there will be any net savings whatsoever in oil or emissions, and it is entirely possible that the bag tax will result in more oil use and more emissions, not less.

What about decreasing the need for landfill area? This doesn’t work either. Plastic bags make up a tiny part of our land fill volume—we suspect even less than the very small amount reported in the city’s own commissioned study. Realistically, it may be as small as one tenth of one percent. Not only will the amount of reduction not be visible, it may not be measurable, and it will certainly be at least partially offset by the increased consumption of reusable poly bags and the assorted plastic bags we will buy to fulfill the 101 handy roles the grocery bags now play.

The Styrofoam ban is not immune from similar criticism. As Portland has found, a Styrofoam ban will seriously hinder efforts to recycle it and cause a shift to much more expensive plastic and paper substitutes that will not break down in landfills and will be just as ugly when littered. We shouldn’t ignore the fact that the production of Styrofoam uses fewer resources than the production of the substitutes that will replace it. Further, the ban will not result in the disappearance of Styrofoam. It will remain the most used packing medium for all of those things we Seattleites order on-line, and it will still be part of the waste stream. We won’t notice a thing except that our takeouts will be in different, far more expensive containers that take up more space in the landfills. Again, the study the city commissioned to look at the impact of the ban shows that the ban will cause higher costs (69% more), more energy to be used (114% more), more carbon emissions (134% more) and more generated waste (140% more). That means that the energy use, the carbon emissions and the waste related to these food containers will more than double as a result of the ban!

So why should Seattle implement the proposed Plastax and ban on Styrofoam containers? It might make some of us feel good, and it may look good for a very few of us on our resumes around the green world. But the tax and the ban will result in no real gains for the community. They will impose significant costs on the citizens of Seattle and many of its businesses and will likely create a bureaucracy to manage it that the city simply doesn’t need. The proposed program also ignores the huge technological innovations occurring in the production of plastic bags and Styrofoam, innovations that are making these products more user friendly all the time. Technological change is the reason Italy and France are exempting bio-degradable and compostable bags from their litter-focused bans. It is also why Shanghai, China moved away from the ban on Styrofoam and now recycles more than 70 percent of the Styrofoam food containers used in the city. (That recycling rate, by the way, is higher than we Seattleites attain recycling both glass and aluminum). In a similar vein, Scotland recently rejected the Plastax because of what they perceived to be a small litter problem and questionable gains for the community.

Don’t get me wrong here. I have been lecturing and teaching about pollution and resource use for thirty years. I personally dislike our use of plastic bags, but I dislike our use of paper towels, aluminum cans, cardboard, Styrofoam packing material, charcoal barbeques and a hundred other things as well. I just don’t see that the proposed program accomplishes anything. I want to see the city spend its political capital on policies that have real punch. Feel good doesn’t work. If the policy doesn’t make you cringe politically, it probably isn’t worth much. Taxes and tolls that move people out of cars and into buses should be at the forefront of our policy initiatives. Policies that encourage the use of hybrids over gas guzzlers in the city should not be far behind. Outright bans (starting at the city parks department) on gasoline lawnmowers, blowers and weed eaters and on pesticides, inorganic fertilizers, wood burning fireplaces and the like will have real effects with noticeable differences in the form of less oil consumption, less congestion, less airborne pollution, less water pollution, and more fish.

If we must deal with plastic bags, do what New York City just did: devise a program that encourages recycling of plastic bags. These bags are, after all, as recyclable as bottles and cans. Seattleites know how to recycle, and with a bit of education and encouragement, they will no doubt choose to recycle plastic bags just as they do their bottles and cans.

Peter H. Nickerson
Nickerson & Associates and
The Northwest Economic Policy Seminar