The World

Ban the Bag … or Better Yet, Just Charge 5 Cents for It

An Indian worker washing plastics is reflected in a pool of liquid at a dump on the outskirts of Mumbai on Dec. 11, 2009.

Photo by Pal Pillai/AFP/Getty Images

I highly recommend my colleague Miriam Krule’s hilarious live-tweeting of last night’s Park Slope Food Co-op meeting on a proposal to eliminate plastic bags. Having grown up just a few blocks away from the co-op, I always enjoy getting glimpses inside the institution, which I’ve viewed as a kind of secretive totalitarian cult devoted to cheap vegetables.

But co-op mishegas aside, this is actually one issue where my fellow Brooklynites are playing catch-up. Anti-plastic-bag policies—either outright bans or taxes—are already in effect in nearly 100 U.S. cities, including here in Washington since 2010. As the New York Times reports, California may soon become the first U.S. state to impose a blanket plastic bag ban.

A number of other countries have already taken more dramatic nationwide steps. Bangladesh became the first country to ban polythene bags in 2002. Bags clogging drainage pipes were found to have been one of the main reasons for the devastating 1988 and 1998 floods that left two-thirds of the country submerged. In 2008 China began requiring stores to charge for bags. Despite lax enforcement, the rule reduced plastic bag use by 49 percent.  

The most serious plastic crackdown may be in Rwanda, which became the first African country to take action on plastic bags when it imposed an outright ban in 2008. The laws are harsh: Walking down the street with a plastic bag can result in a $150 fine. Store owners stocking them can spend six to 12 months in prison. Putting aside human rights concerns about Paul Kagame’s increasingly dictatorial government, such policies have earned the country—in particular the capital, Kigali—a reputation as one of Africa’s cleanest.

The law has also spurred the creation of one of the world’s most prosaic black markets: the thriving underground trade in plastic bags, complete with crime syndicates delivering smuggled polythene to merchants. When you outlaw plastic bags, only outlaws will have plastic bags. 

Rwanda’s draconian measures aside, I’m generally in favor of policies to reduce plastic bag usage. They’re hazardous to manufacture, take hundreds of years to decompose, are a nuisance for farms and a blight on cities, and extremely harmful to animals when ingested. In tropical countries, they can be breeding grounds for malarial mosquitos.

Light bag taxes—like the 5 cent fee charged in D.C.—seem to me like one of the more successful examples of the kind of “nudge” policies favored by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. The deterrent is less the money than the fact that you actually have to make a conscious decision to take a bag. If you find yourself without a bag and need an item that won’t fit in your pockets and you don’t feel like carrying, 5 cents isn’t going to break the bank. But in many other cases—a single toothbrush from CVS, for instance—having to affirmatively ask for a bag will probably make you less likely to take one.

(As long as you use some common sense, like not risking norovirus by storing your food in a bathroom, reusable bags are really not that much of a hassle.)

D.C.’s bag policy actually worked too well. A year after it was implemented, a river cleanup project that was supposed to be paid for by the tax was underfunded because fewer people than expected were buying bags.)

So a little smart public policy could probably make the Park Slope Food Co-op’s debate entirely unnecessary, though where would be the fun in that?