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May 2015 Featured Article
Making Trash Removal More Affordable in Every Municipality
Inexpensive to produce, plastic carryout bags create a range of challenges for local governments. Plastic bags increase litter cleanup costs, pose environmental hazards and create greater demands on recycling. These costs to the public have become growing concerns. Plastic bags can easily become litter even when properly discarded. States such as California as well as a growing number of cities including Washington D.C., New York City and Philadelphia have already, or are planning to curb these rising costs for both budgetary and environmental reasons. The emerging policies responding to this trend are referred to as Plastic Bag Fees.
The concept behind the practice is not new. For example, the average mark-up for a medium soft drink at a fast food restaurant is approximately 1,250% in order to offset the cost of labor to prepare each meal. Ranging from 5 cents to 25 cents per bag depending on the local policy, Plastic Bag Fees can effectively raise the additional revenue streams necessary to offset the costs of disposing plastic single-use bags. Although the fee is pushed onto the customer, they have the freedom to avoid the added costs by bringing reusable bags from home. Because of this alternative, the fee is able to foster new behaviors in purchasing goods where the consumer takes a more active role in reducing the volume of plastic bag waste.
Taxpayers may not realize the types of costs associated with discarding single use bags. For example, consider New York City: Its population is similar to that of New Jersey. The City’s Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse and Recycling, found that New Yorkers used 5.2 billion carryout bags per year on average, the vast majority of which were not recycled. For 2008, plastic bags alone accounted for over 1,700 tons of residential garbage per week that the city would have to pay six other states to store in landfills—an estimated $10 million dollars in expenses per year. When the bags do not reach landfills, they have been reported to jam expensive machinery at recycling plants and contaminate the recycling stream, further increasing costs.
In Philly Magazine’s March 5, 2015 article titled “Is Philadelphia Ready for a Plastic Bag Tax?”, it was noted that Washington D.C.’s five year-old Plastic Bag Fee is providing the City’s waste removal budget with an additional revenue stream of approximately $2 million per year. Over the same period, the Capital experienced a sharp reduction of use of plastic carry-out bags. According to this article, if implemented in Philadelphia, the policy would pay for the City’s street sweeping services entirely.
As litter, The Huffington Post reports single-use plastic bags are frequently caught in storm drains, exacerbating flooding and sewage discharges into waterways and are the fourth most commonly found type of litter on U.S. beaches. According to the Clean Ocean Action, beach cleanup of New Jersey’s 127-mile long coastline gathered up over 43,000 plastic wrappers and bags in 2011 through its annual volunteer event. For larger coastal states like California, the effort to reduce the volume of plastic litter along its coastline resulted in a planned state-wide ban on plastic carry-out bags. Litter removal along California beaches runs a price tag of over $50 million per year.
In New Jersey, attention is focusing on Princeton, the State’s first municipality to propose such a Plastic Bag Fee. NJ.com states that the proposed ordinance would require customers to pay between 10 and 25 cents per bag, with the money going back to the merchant or company. In return, each merchant is responsible for tracking the consumption of single-use plastic bags compared with reusable bags. Additionally, reusable or already recycled paper bags could also be distributed for free.
In these days of diminishing grant funding, severe municipal budget constraints and a growing awareness of environmental issues and challenges, the concept of Plastic Bag Fees makes “cents” – literally. The revenue produced can help communities meet the escalating costs of clean up and even offset the costs of other local services.
Published May 2015.