The plastic bag issue is returning to the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee on Wednesday. City staff are recommending a “comprehensive education and communication plan as the course of action,” with a budget of $300,000-$400,000. In other words, not to do very much at all.
The 5-cent plastic bag fee is unlikely to return, by the looks of it, but it’s worth taking this opportunity to consider its merits. The fee was not only effective (use of plastic bags dropped by 53%) but it was also a simple and elegant way to achieve this effect.
The 5-cent fee was an example of the “Nudge” theory of public policy, popularized by the book Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. The idea is, essentially, to find ways to use small, targeted measures to shift people’s behaviour rather than heavy-handed and expensive regulations. It’s portrayed as a cross-partisan idea because it combines the liberal desire to encourage more socially constructive behaviour with the conservative ideal of people being able to choose their behaviour, and of minimizing government activity (the UK Conservative government is apparently keen on it). The idea has probably been over-hyped, but it’s useful in some cases, and plastic bags is a good example.
The good thing about the plastic bag fee is that it leaves some choice, or indeed the possibility of backup. I’ve been using reusable bags since before the fee, but sometimes I realize I need to buy something when I don’t have a bag with me. It’s good to have the option, and plastic bags are generally stronger, easier to carry, more waterproof and more re-usable than paper bags. And you’re more likely to reuse a plastic bag if you know you paid something for it (rather than if you just saw a City ad in the subway, as is being proposed).
One common complaint about the plastic bag fee was that retailers kept the money. But that was not actually a bug, it was a feature. First, of course, it gives retailers some incentive to actually charge the fee. But more importantly, it meant that the fee didn’t require any bureaucracy, any government oversight to calculate and collect the fees. We got a public policy goal (less waste) without having to expand government at all.
It was hardly a windfall for retailers, either. First, bags do cost retailers – probably a couple of cents a bag. As for the other 3 cents, that would pay for about 10 seconds of the time of a retail employee earning minimum wage ($10.25/hr) – just enough time for them to say “do you need a bag with that”? In other words, the 5 cents just about covers the employer’s costs in time and material for providing plastic bags. The 5-cent fee wasn’t a cash grab by either retailers or government — it simply made consumers to pay something like the actual cost of their decision to use a store-provided plastic bag.
One factor that may play into the opposition to a bag fee is that the quality of the bag varies widely from retailer to retailer. I now shop at a Foodland, which provides reasonably thick, strong bags that can almost always be reused. But I used to shop at Metro, which provides really flimsy bags that almost always get punctured on first use. It would indeed be aggravating to pay for one of those, and I suspect that factor contributed to the opposition (David Shiner, when he introduced the motion to abolish plastic bags, complained about their flimsiness). A simple solution to this problem would be to establish a minimum thickness of bag, as some other jurisdictions in North America have done, to ensure that any bags distributed are reusable.
A poll conducted for the city (PDF) showed that citizens are split exactly 50-50 on supporting or not supporting the 5-cent plastic bag fee. That’s probably too close for most politicians. But it leaves open the possibility that the fee could be re-introduced in the future.
Photo by Sam Javanrouh