To me, a Montgomery County, Maryland native and many others, the institution of the Carryout Bag Law nearly two years ago was an unheard of phenomenon. It proposed a 5-cent tax per plastic bag used, and was put into effect following Washington, D.C.’s footsteps. People initially were a little unsure about how to feel in this situation. Many felt it was unnecessary, and there were also many who didn’t even know that it was coming. What seemed like such a bizarre concept has now become the norm. I always bring reusable bags with me when I go shopping now, but I have to admit I never thought about doing that before the tax was enacted. Although it took some time for people to catch on, a trip to the grocery store around here now features almost all shoppers carrying some type of reusable bag. Although 5 cents isn’t much, people have cottoned on to the idea of just reusing a bag that only costs $2 to purchase once.
Since the bag tax has been put into effect, there has been a significant reduction in the amount of bags that volunteers of the Trash Free Potomac Watershed Initiative have cleaned up from Montgomery County. In its first year, 2012, there was a 50% reduction in the amount of bags that were cleaned up. Safeway also noted that there was a 70% drop in bag use by customers who checked out in 2012, with similar results occurring in Washington, D.C. Safeways. In D.C., where the law has been in place since 2010, it was reported that 4 out of 5 residents say they use fewer bags than they did before the law. It is really a result of one of the most basic rules of economics: incentives matter.
And for those who forget or stubbornly just pay the tax and use plastic bags, the money generated from the tax goes towards the cost of cleaning up litter, which is usually paid for by property taxes. So for even those who just refuse to change old ways, the tax money is being put towards a productive environmental purpose.
These steps towards reducing plastic bag use are important mainly due to the destructive effects of plastic bags on the environment. They are so readily available due to the cheap way they can be produced and their effectiveness and durability. They are so affordable that store owners and cashiers will use four or five bags when they maybe could have just used one or two. They are thus used in monumental quantities and most people do not give a second thought about them. Data released from the Environmental Protection Agency in 2001 says that between 500 billion and one trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year, and millions of these end up in landfills.
Once the plastics are in these landfills it can take hundreds of years to break down and as they do, they release toxins into the soil, lakes, rivers, and oceans. When these plastic bags turn up in oceans, they can choke and starve animals that live in these habitats. Fortunately, the huge popularity of plastic bags is causing their downfall and people are becoming more aware of their environmental costs.
The U.S. seems to be behind other advanced industrialized nations in realizing this, however. Taxes established in Ireland in 2002 have resulted in almost everyone carrying reusable shopping bags. When I personally studied abroad in France this past summer, plastic bags weren’t even offered at the grocery store. I bought a reusable one for the mere month I was there. Perhaps if more states and cities in the U.S. enacted similar taxes to those in Europe and in Montgomery County and D.C., the plastic bag issue would become more and more obsolete. The results are clearly significant in the areas where they have been put to use. People do adapt to these changes, and their incentives would cause them to reduce their use of plastic bags. The key is to bring about better awareness and education to this issue, and hopefully that will occur in the upcoming years.