Monday, May 28, 2012

plastic bag bans

Two days ago the city of Los Angeles, CA became the largest city in the US to ban plastic grocery bags, following a host of other locations including San Fransisco (controversial ban imposed in 2007), Portland OR, and North Carolina's Outer Banks (more detail here).

Read about the LA decision here at Reuters News Service.

As we move toward discussing options for pollution control, a general theme that we'll consider is the effectiveness and efficiency of command-and-control alternatives (standards) including such bans relative to incentive-based systems like taxes and subsidies.

A more general question to consider is whether the optimal number of plastic bags is zero or some positive number.

Some places have used taxes/fees (Pigou's solution) to effectively remove most bags. Here are some examples: 
Wales UK

Washington DC
Toronto Canada

Here is a thought-provoking take on the topic from Science and Development Network, basically calling for better management rather than an outright ban. 

Obviously this is a controversial issue. What are the pros and cons of each approach? When is a outright ban a better choice? When might we opt for a tax/fee?  What other pollution problems can be addressed with bans vs. Pigouvian taxes?


Brian Graham said...

I do not feel that a complete ban of plastic bags is the most efficient way of dealing with the pollution/environmental problems that incur with their existence. This is so in my opinion because of the costs that are involved with other alternatives to plastic bags. I agree that better management is the key instead. The "3 Rs" technique is especially intriguing, especially the recycling part. If incentives were given to trash companies and companies that sell/use plastic bags to increase reuse rates this could be more efficient. It is simply more costly to radically switch to some other material such as fabric or metal etc. Taxes to consumers and businesses who elect to use these plastic bags would also be more efficient than that of a ban in my opinion again through market incentives. These taxes would lead to decreased rates of use and if they don't and people are still willing to pay the tax for plastic bags then clearly the alternatives are just far too costly to engage in a full on ban.

Anonymous said...

J. Embrey

I can remember when plastic bag use was encouraged so that you could "save a tree", but now alas they have fallen out of favor.

I went to the store yesterday. I spent $65(I actually spent $55 b/c I had a $10 off coupon) on groceries. Those groceries fit into 6 bags. If the store were to charge $0.10 per bag I would not have cared about the additional $0.60 I would have paid.

I am always leary of "usage fees" - i.e. taxes on plastic bags - because they are rarely used for their stated purpose.

A good example is the "usage fee" at Ft. Fisher for 4x4. I think less than 25% of that money actually goes to Ft. Fisher.

It is always proposed that government can regulate behavior through taxes and subsidies. This is practical on a micro-level (the auto industry), but many times more difficult on a macro-level (the entire population of the U.S.) and the grand ideas of the bureacrat rarely work as planned.

As for the ban. I am not a fan of plastic bags. I pretty sure the ban violates the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constituti on. If a city taxes the stores the consumer will pay. The best solution is for a store, or group of stores, to determine that they want to discourage the use of plastic bags and offer incentives for consumers to choose alternate methods of grocery conveyance.

Stella Smith said...

The pros of an outright ban on plastic bags is that you can theoretically get rid of the pollutant all together and “force” society in the direction of a new market (reusable bags). The cons of such an approach is that it is difficult to enforce; a cop at every plastic that hands out plastic bags? The pros of a tax on plastic bags is that you create a revenue base for the government and you achieve a more efficient solution (in theory). The cons of this solution is that it requires a lot of information on the market of plastic bags: how much damage they cause, how it would cost suppliers to not supply the bag, how much consumers’ are willing to pay for a plastic bag, etc.

An outright ban is the best solution, if the pollution (in this case plastic bags) have extremely high external costs to society, particularly in the form of health or environmental effects. Even asbestos is still produced to be used as some factory parts, so the health effects for that were not so outrageous as to warrant a ban. Something else that could also warrant a ban on a pollution would be extremely high marginal damages and extremely low cost to abate. Some examples would be lead in gasoline and lead in children’s toys.
A tax or a fee is more likely the best solution and most efficient solution to a pollution problem, because is still allows for the market to exist, but pushes the market to a more socially optimal output level (which is rarely ever zero pollution). However, we would need information about the market of the pollution and we would have to have a way in which to measure the pollutant. A good example of when a tax would be the preferred option is point source pollution is point sources of pollution such as discharges into the waterway from a firm, trash from residential houses, etc.

rockhugger77 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rockhugger77 said...

I think that plastic bag bans are actually a good idea if there is a cheap and easily obtained substitute to plastic bags that is. Paper bags and reusable bags seem to be a good substitute. Even if plastic bags are not banned, just taxed, I do think that would help cut down on plastic bags all the same.

Some pros to banning plastic bags might be less waste in the land fields, and less energy used to make the bags in the first place.

Cons include finding an alternative source to plastic bags, and not having the convenience of plastic bags.

bethany pahl said...

I believe an outright ban on plastic bags is more efficient than a tax per use. The ban makes mores sense because consumers do not have to worry about another tax and substitutes are available.

Rachel Davis said...

A ban on plastic bags is more efficient than a tax on them. Substitutes are readily and easily available and I think this is a great way to inspire people to think about resources and recycling and our dependence on convenience because they are reminded of it. I believe it has worked well in especially in places in the south pacific where plastics wash ashore constantly and they see the effects in their lives daily.