Trash the D.C. bag tax

Suhail Khan Institute for Global Engagement
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On a recent visit to my Washington, D.C., neighborhood drugstore, I witnessed several customers angrily reacting to the District government’s latest overreach: a ridiculous nickel-a-bag tax. This silly tax was proposed by council members Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) and went into effect at the beginning of the year.

Hustled through with the promise of improving the District’s environment, a penny of each nickle stays with the retailer to ostensibly pay for the bag (and to buy the retailers’ political silence), and the remaining four cents will go into a fund dedicated to cleaning up the District’s Anacostia River. And while no one has of yet been cited, the law carries a fine of $100 for the first violation.

Now, I’m all for anything that’ll help improve the District’s water, air, and overall environment. But will the D.C. Council’s latest nickel-and-dime scheme work? Recent experience screams no. After imposing a similar levy on plastic bags in Ireland, supporters hailed the measure as a resounding success pointing to a 90 percent decline in the usage of new plastic shopping bags as a direct result of the nationwide bag tax. However, the total usage of all plastic bags in the Emerald Isle actually increased by 10 percent following imposition of the bag tax. Why? Once the tax was imposed, the Irish refused the once-free bags and began buying commercially available trash bags and liners. Over 92 percent of shoppers reuse plastic bags for a host of basic household duties such as lining wastepaper baskets and the like. Tax those free bags, and consumers will turn to commercially-available alternatives to keep our homes tidy and clean. Worse, the tax has little effect in cleaning up the environment. San Francisco banned plastic bags outright in 2007, becoming the first American city to impose such a limitation. The measure had absolutely no effect on the city’s litter mitigation goals, according to audits of the city’s trash and litter.

The District and San Francisco City Council members aren’t the only revenue-hungry lawmakers to impose such new taxes. Across the country, lawmakers have introduced over two-dozen plastic-bag-tax bills the past year alone, and more are expected to come. Not long after the D.C. Council’s passage of the bag tax last summer, Councilmember Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) stated that the new bag tax was merely “the first step.” Indeed, the bag tax is merely the latest in taxes levied on Americans at every step and level of our lives. There’s the federal tax on income, capital gains, dividends, interest, SUVs, marriage, gasoline, airlines and dying; property taxes, county and city taxes, state sales, car, cigarette and alcohol taxes, hotel and other “luxury” taxes, and there’s the proposed taxes on energy, sodas, trans-fats, mileage and “Cadillac” health care plans.

And while these taxes amount to billions and trillions of dollars, the nickel-and-dime taxes may be the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back in alienating Americans from government’s insatiable appetite for our money. As Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform commented, “this tax hits a particular sweet-spot where it’s not raising enough to do anything substantial but annoying enough to taxpayers to force them to examine just how much money the government steals from all of us.” In the meantime, D.C. residents will have to find innovative ways to get their shopping home. I suppose women will have to tote bigger purses and handbags, and we men will likewise have to follow suit in carrying purses, or rather, European carry-alls.

Suhail A. Khan is a member of the Board of Directors of the American Conservative Union.