OPINION: To Ban or to Tax: That is the Only Question

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Here's a thought question: If you were a policymaker, which would you choose?
  • A ban on plastic bags that will anger a significant percentage of voters while reducing plastic bag use almost entirely (over several years), but possibly increase overall ire at government's meddling to "save the environment."
  • Or, a tax on plastic bags, which will reduce plastic bag usage 85-95 percent but maintain the illusion of free choice and, as an added bonus, generate revenue to address other pollution and overconsumption issues (translation: help pay for additional government meddling to save the environment).

Both of these are examples of "choice editing," an important and routine role of government since the days of village councils. Recent examples of choice editing abound, from taxing cigarettes to fining people for not wearing their seatbelts. And if we are going to stabilize the climate and bring about a more sustainable society, editing out ecologically damaging products and behaviors will have to be an essential role of governments.

Certainly, choice editing has been used for curbing environmental damage for years: banning CFCs and capping sulfur emissions are two success stories that come to mind. But governments currently do far less to shape choices that encourage sustainable living than to stimulate consumption-focusing instead on policies such as generous subsidies for fossil fuels and roads, and minimal support for public goods like mass transit systems. These incentives and disincentives bias Americans' preference toward driving instead of taking the bus and living in the suburbs rather than in walkable communities. Yes, we've moved beyond using CFCs in our hairspray, but we still have a long way to go to live a sustainable lifestyle.

Addressing the plastic bag issue is a great opportunity to edit citizens' choices in one more way that favors sustainability, and one that'll have an effect on a daily basis. So the question is not whether governments-including the state of California, where a bag ban is currently under deliberation-should deal with plastic bags, but how.

The case of Washington, D.C., is an interesting one. In 2009, D.C. residents were using 22.5 million plastic bags per month. Since a five-cent tax per bag was imposed on January 1, 2010, District residents are now using 3 million plastic bags per month. And that's just a nickel tax-the same amount as a bottle deposit when it was first introduced in the 1970s. If we adjusted for inflation, this five cents is the equivalent of just a penny today.

Imagine, then, what a 25-cent bag tax would produce. While maintaining the freedom of choice and the convenience of plastic bags if you forget your reusable bag and really need one, it would cut out nearly all plastic bag usage. After all, those who are against government interference certainly don't want to give Uncle Sam extra taxes to do the diabolical work of curbing pollution, do they? As an added bonus, this relatively modest D.C. tax raised $150,000 in its first month, which will help support clean-up of the very polluted Anacostia River.

But the key point is that in a culture like America, where freedom is deemed sacred (even though governments, business, and the media regularly shape our behaviors and thoughts), preserving the perception of free choice is an important part of any successful legislation. So while a plastic bag ban might be better in some places-like China, Kenya, or, yes, San Francisco, a significant bag tax might be the best way to go in California. Ultimately, no matter which bill California passes, it'll be a good day for Earth, and thus a good day for us humans who inhabit it.

Erik Assadourian is a Senior Fellow at Worldwatch Institute and Director of State of the World 2010: Transforming Cultures-From Consumerism to Sustainability.