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Bag the plastic bag tax

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By Matthew Glans
Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Legislators in Harrisburg are considering a proposal from state Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Wayne, that would make Pennsylvania the first state to impose a statewide tax on the use of plastic bags.

Eight other states — Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington — are considering similar plastic bag taxes.

Under the proposal, consumers in Pennsylvania would be charged 2 cents for each single-use plastic bag they receive from large retailers. The money raised by this tax would be divided equally between the store and the Pennsylvania Recycling Fund.

On his website, Leach argued his tax “would encourage consumers to shift away from using inefficient plastic shopping bags by imposing a $0.02 fee for each bag provided by a retail establishment.” Giving the retailers part of the money is a clever way of gaining support by combining environmentalism with crony capitalism. The Legislature easily can take away the retailers' share after the law goes into effect.

When a similar tax was implemented in Washington, D.C., in 2010, the revenues generated by the tax were lower than expected. Shortly after the tax was passed, the Beacon Hill Institute estimated it would cost 100 local jobs and cut aggregate disposable income by $5.64 million in 2011 alone.

Such results applied to an entire state could be exponentially worse. Beacon Hill's study also found D.C. will lose approximately $602,000 in investment and $108,340 in sales tax revenue as a result of the tax.

Although reusable cloth bags appear to be the most efficient way to transport goods with minimal environmental effect, recent reports cast doubt on this assumption.

A study conducted in the United Kingdom found grocery shoppers would have to use their cloth bags approximately 131 times to realize the benefits the critics of plastic bags claim. The study also found reuse of plastic bags greatly reduces their environmental harm.

A 2007 survey by the American Chemistry Council found 92 percent of consumers reuse plastic bags — indicating they might not be the environmental threat critics claim they are.

Reusable cloth bags also might present a public health risk because of the potential contamination of the bags by food-borne bacteria. A 2012 study by Jonathan Klick and Joshua Wright found evidence the reusable bags can contain potentially harmful bacteria.

Klick and Wright examined emergency room admissions related to these bacteria after plastic bags were banned in San Francisco and found ER visits spiked when the ban went into effect, and compared to other counties, both ER admissions in San Francisco and deaths exhibited an increase.

Despite the noble goals of this new “sin” tax, laws regulating plastic bag use have several major flaws. The taxes are unlikely to generate the revenue their sponsors expect, while placing an additional burden on consumers and retailers, having a negligible impact on the environment and increasing the incidence of food-borne illnesses.

Pennsylvania legislators should consider the negative effects and limited value of plastic bag taxes before implementing them.

Matthew Glans ( is a senior policy analyst at The Heartland Institute.

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