Amidst a 40-year high inflation rate that now stands at 7.9% nationally, numerous cities, states, and counties throughout the country are moving ahead with plans to introduce bans or taxes on plastic bags that will nickel and dime consumers for everyday shopping. 

Predicated on the notion that such restrictions are needed to help combat climate change, end dependence on fossil fuels, and reduce product waste, plastic bag bans and taxes on plastic bags have quickly become a popular component of various new green initiatives introduced by politicians. They are frequently touted as easy steps communities can take to reduce their carbon footprint and practice sustainable living. Unfortunately, these bans and taxes frequently just mask the desire of politicians to generate additional tax revenue.

Numerous examples can be found across the country at different levels of government. For instance, the city of Philadelphia recently introduced a plastic bag ban for all commercial businesses throughout the city that will take effect April 1st. After this date, any business caught providing a customer with a plastic bag will face a minimum penalty of $150 fine per violation. Many other cities, like Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle, already have similar bans in place. Others have instead chosen to introduce taxes on plastic bag use.

Several states, including California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington, also have plastic bag bans. However, more are joining all the time, and usually without the consent of state residents who seldom have an opportunity to vote on such measures.

For example, New Jersey recently approved the strictest plastic bag ban in the country. First signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy in Sept. 2020, the ban will take effect later this year and will prohibit the distribution of all single-use plastic bags at stores throughout the state. In addition, paper bags and Styrofoam containers will also be banned at most large grocery stores, so consumers will either need to purchase a reusable bag or bring their own. Penalties for any business caught disobeying the law include first being issued a warning, followed by a $1,000 fine for the second offense, and a $5,000 fine for any subsequent offense.

State county leaders have also busied themselves writing new laws that limit plastic bag use. In Virginia, several northern counties including Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax, Falls Church, and Loudoun have recently approved plastic bag taxes that will require residents to pay five cents per disposable bag when shopping. Officials claim the tax is needed to reduce the “negative environmental impact of single use plastic bags” and will be utilized to help fund programs like environmental cleanup and litter collection. Similarly, Montgomery County Maryland has also imposed a five-cent tax on both plastic and paper bags, as part of the county’s “carryout bag law,” which will generate revenue for the Water Quality Protection Charge (WQPC) fund.

These examples highlight just a fraction of the many new bans and taxes on plastic bags that have been introduced across the country. While each is by itself usually fairly limited, together they present a real burden to the American consumer who already must navigate a complicated patchwork of different laws. These new laws also tend to have unintended consequences.

For instance, in places with taxes on plastic bags, the consumer now faces an unnecessary charge on items that can prove extremely useful. Plastic bags can be used for everything from school lunches and packing material to trashcan liners and pet waste. Even a small plastic bag tax poses a danger because it opens the door to future tax increases by government leaders, who may either desire greater tax revenue or believe that additional financial pressure on consumers is needed to influence their behavior.

Other unintended consequences include the tendency of consumers to use alternative bag options that require more energy to produce and cause more harm to the environment. Traditional tote bags have also been found to harbor harmful bacteria.

It is clear that plastic bag bans and taxes have not lived up to expectations. In stark contrast to the advantages envisioned by politicians, these restrictions have not benefitted the consumer, and it is questionable whether they have even benefited the environment. Lawmakers would be wise to repeal these cumbersome laws and trust Americans to make the right choice for their situation. Furthermore, if lawmakers desire to reduce plastic waste, they should encourage voluntary cooperation and support new innovative technologies that can serve as suitable alternatives. Choosing to nickel and dime consumers for everyday items is the wrong approach to creating positive change.