As more research comes in, resource sustainability and the effects of our daily carbon footprint have come more and more to the forefront of Americans' consciousness. Given the terrible environmental consequences of both single-use plastic and paper bags, the most socially responsible action for communities to adopt would be to tax all single use bags, as the tax would serve as a deterrent to consumers, thus saving the environment, the tax revenue can be funneled back into much needed research and development, and reusable bags provide a feasible and accessible alternative to single-use bags.
Let us examine the current status quo. Statistics from the David Suzuki Foundation ofers shocking evidence against usage of plastic bags: where Ritch, et. al. tout the newly improved lightweightedness of modern plastic bags as a beneficial feature, Suzuki has found that that exact lightweightedness contributes to plastic bags' susceptibility to being carried into the ocean, where 95% of beached northern fulmars were found with bellies full of plastic (Sources A, B), a trend confirmed by the Ocean Conservancy's Coastal Cleanup findings as cited by the Wall Street Journal (Source C).
Not only are they a danger to wildlife, plastic bags are also rarely (Source B) and uneasily (Source F) recycled, unsustainably made of petroleum (Source B), and nonbiodegradable (Source F). Yet… paper bags aren't actually a much better alternative. As Source A states, paper bag production increases methane being released in landfills, further filling our air with greenhouse gases (Source A). As if that weren't bad enough, they also consume inordinate amounts of water and energy to produce and recycle (Source F).
Clearly, both options are terrible for our society and environment.
Before our dear Carrier Bag Consortium (Source A) and similar lobbyists come knocking on my door for taking away their sales and profits, the tax I have in mind doesn't have to hurt our current paper and plastic bag manufacturers. The tax revenue earned on single-use bags can be funneled into sorely needed research on efficient recycling methods for both paper and plastic bags as well as biodegradable alternatives, such as bioplastics, for currently irreplaceable plastic bag needs like garbage bags. These funds can go into protesting organizations such as the Waste & Resources Action Program or the Carrier Bag Consortium mentioned in Source A in the form of grants or R&D tax credits. The little Colorado ski town of Aspen, with only two grocery stores, shows us a trial run of this taxation program: with a mere 20 cent charge, the town raised $44,826 in approximately a year (Source E). And that's just with two grocery stores! Imagine the money that could be fundraised to assist current single-use bag sunset industries transition into the future. Now that's what I call a win-win situation.
With a tax on single-use bags, the alternative would be reusable bags — and that alternative doesn't come without costs. GreenBiz's Marc Gunther posits that reusable bags still carry a much higher or equal carbon footprint compared to their single-use peers due to sturdier construction (Source D). While this may be true, many reusable bags are themselves made out of recycled industrial or post-consumer waste plastics, meaning their only carbon footprint comes from the production process, not raw inputs. Furthermore, these inefficiencies only highlight the work that needs to be done focused on how we can better use recycled materials in making reusable products. Given the drastic impacts on the climate and animals we share our Earth with, using slightly more water and energy while we find a better solution seems a worthy sacrifice.
There is no doubt that a tax on single-use bags will strongly impact consumers' decisions, but an unexpected side benefit is the tax revenue that can be used to address current inefficiencies and find even better solutions than our current reusable-bag model. By implementing a tax, we not only take a strong, proactive stance on saving the environment, we also push our industries to innovate for a stronger, more sustainable future.