The Beginning of Sanity

It’s a small tax in just one city, but the disposable shopping bag fee to be launched in the District of Columbia on New Year’s Day marks the beginning of sanity for the disposable society. It’s a sensible way to raise (modest) government revenue while tilting personal behavior (also modestly) toward global environmental sustainability. (For much more on the topic of how to encourage the evolution of sustainable cultures worldwide, be sure to check out the Worldwatch Institute’s upcoming State of the World 2010: Transforming Cultures: From Consumerism to Sustainability.)

D.C. consumers will have the option of using their own bags for groceries and sundries (many stores will give these away for free in January) or paying a nickel for each plastic or paper bag their purchases require. The modest size of the tax—and that’s what it is—has inspired grousing about being “nickled and dimed” by government. But it will hardly be a hardship for shoppers at any income level—especially since it’s easily evaded by simply carrying your own cloth bags. Or you can simply keep and reuse plastic and paper bags you received for free in 2009. 

The main goal, of course, is behavior change—an idea many social conservatives loathe when governments and taxes are involved. But tax-induced behavior change is nothing new. No one objects to liquor and tobacco taxes, which modestly discourage consumption of these socially problematic goods. It’s about time we begin taxing consumption of environmentally problematic (and unnecessary) paper and plastic products. Similar taxes should have been instituted years ago—and eventually will be—to discourage emissions of greenhouse gases.

Despite the annoyance of being nickled and dimed and the inevitable gripes from some that governments shouldn’t  use its power to tax in order to limit personal freedom, four good developments can arise from green consumption taxes.

One, revenues raised can induce reductions in income and property taxes, neither of which discourage inherently harmful behavior. Two, raising the cost of environmentally damaging consumption will discourage it, not just through its marginally higher costs but through the regularly reinforced message that society is trying to reduce it. Three, to the extent environmentally unsustainable behavior is actually reduced, the environment will benefit tangibly. (The bag tax in D.C. was promoted in large part to clean up the plastic-clogged Anacostia River, and that argument convinced the City Council to approve the tax by a wide margin.)

And finally, and perhaps best of all, such taxes fairly and equitably remind all people that we live in a crowded, resource-constrained world and we need to find ways to minimize the environmental room each of us takes up. That’s sanity, and the D.C. bag tax is a beginning. 

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