The war on plastic bags is now a global struggle, and New Zealand should join it.
This week a proposal for a compulsory levy on plastic shopping bags will be debated at the Local Government New Zealand conference. In fact, the time for debate is over. Now we need action.
Plastic bag levies, or even outright bans, are now common throughout the world, because bags are an environmental menace. They break down slowly and so they continue to blight the landscape and kill sea life and animals for many years.
It has been estimated that the world uses about a trillion single-use plastic bags each year. Millions end up in the ocean where they kill sea life and birds, including endangered species. Cattle deaths from swallowing bags are a problem from Texas to India to Africa. The bags clog drains and cause floods. Light plastic bags can blow for hundreds of kilometres and blight the rural landscape.
Taxes on plastic bags have proved surprisingly effective, as is shown by a major 2014 report for the American Earth Policy Institute. Denmark brought in its levy more than 20 years ago, and within a year usage had dropped 60 per cent. Ireland’s 2002 levy is one of the most celebrated: it reduced the average use from 328 bags per consumer, the Institute reported, to 21.
There can be a case for taxing something, if it has external effects which impose a cost of society as a whole – hence alcohol and cigarette taxes.
However my starting point is always that any new tax must not be used to increase the overall level of taxation (which is too high). So if you was a tax on plastic bags, then I want income or company tax reduced by the same amount that tax would bring in.
Plastic bags do have a negative impact on the environment, so there can be a case for a tax on them. This is preferable to a ban which is highly undesirable. How undesirable – well Eric Crampton estimates it would kill 20 New Zealanders a year.
But be careful of some studies claiming they have led to a big fall in bags used. These may be studies where people self-report use. Sales data is more accurate. The TPA at the Hill reports:
“City revenue figures, meanwhile, show no continuing decrease in the use of disposable bags. In fact, bag tax collections have proven remarkably stable since the nickel-per-bag fee debuted in January 2010,” the report added.
At the time the tax was imposed, D.C. estimated that they would collect $1.05 million in revenues in 2013. The actual haul – more than $2 million. Year-over-year, revenues even increased… by the equivalent of 200,000 bags.
But don’t expect the proponents of the tax to throw in the towel. Brian Van Wye, who works at the D.C. Environmental Department, still denies that the tax is meant to bloat the government’s balance sheet, insisting that the “objective is to change behavior.”
Using that logic, the next step may be for D.C. to double down. After all, if a $0.05 tax isn’t working, perhaps they can increase the per bag fee to $0.10 or $0.25. Since tax-and-spend liberals don’t think their logic is to blame, they have one recourse to this failing policy – more taxes.
That is my fear. That is why any new tax should be offset by tax cuts elsewhere. That reduces the incentive for people to use this as just another way to tax families and businesses more.
The Guardian also reports:
In Northern Ireland, which introduced a compulsory 5p charge on plastic bags last year, there was a 71% drop in consumption. In England, which has yet to implement such a rule, usage rose by 5%. Meanwhile, Wales, which brought in charges two years ago, saw its similarly precipitous fall go into reverse, with a rise of nearly a fifth. It seems the immediate change in behaviour reaped by the new charges is short-lived and it doesn’t take long for old habits to re-emerge.
So it is not actually clear that a tax at such a low level has a significant long-lasting behavioural change.
That said I’m not against such a tax, so long as other taxes are reduced to compensate.