Commentary

Boulder, Colorado Weighing Banning or Taxing Disposable Bags

On the front page of today’s Daily Camera is a story about how the Boulder, Colorado City Council is weighing banning or taxing plastic and paper bags. (The full article is available online here.) Erica Meltzer reports:

A group of students from the Net Zero Club at Fairview High School and Summit Middle School have lobbied the City Council to consider a ban. The idea, along with alternative proposals for a 10- or 20-cent fee on bags, has been included in an update to the city’s Zero Waste Master Plan, which will be presented to the City Council.

One student described the Net Zero Club’s aspiration to forcibly prevent individuals and businesses from using disposable bags as an effort to “change habits.” Another student said the group targeted disposable bags because they’re a “highly visible form of waste.” Visibility aside, Meltzer cites a recent report that found in reality “plastic bags don’t make up a large percentage of waste in the city.”

The City Council isn’t expected to make a final decision, instead they would give direction to the city staff and they are weighing:

  • Banning both plastic and paper bags;
  • Banning plastic bags, and taxing paper bags;
  • Taxing both plastic and paper bags; or,
  • Leaving both plastic and paper bags alone to focus on other priorities.

Ironically, like most newspapers, today’s Daily Camera was delivered in a plastic bag to protect the newspaper; but bags used to protect newspapers such as the Daily Camera would be spared under the current proposal. Most disposable bag bans also exclude retail stores and essentially function to take money from consumers through grocers without impacting revenue generated by retailers. In Boulder’s case, the ban or tax would overwhelmingly impact supermarkets, convenience stores and restaurants, which consume approximately 81% of plastic bags, according to an independent study by Eco-Cycle.

Moves like this appeal to policymakers during economic downturns because it’s easier to kick the can down the road than make difficult budget decisions. Officials are able to raise revenue under the guise of a “fee” that is more appropriately described as a tax. Meltzer reports that disposable bag taxes could extract as much as $1.1 million from Boulder consumers each year. Fortunately, political convenience does not always win out, for example voters recently overwhelmingly rejected a similar 15-cent plastic bag tax in Alaska.

For more of Reason Foundation’s work on disposable bag bans, see here and here.

Harris Kenny is a state and local government policy analyst at Reason Foundation, a non-profit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.

Harris has worked alongside policymakers in Colorado, Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Arizona, Oregon and elsewhere to implement public policy solutions. Harris is currently serving as a member of the Local Authority Working Group of Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper's Amendment 64 Task Force, which is providing guidance on implementing recreational marijuana legalization. He conducts research on public finance, public-private partnerships, privatization, public safety, criminal justice and regulatory policy issues.

Harris has appeared on various television and radio outlets, such as National Public Radio, HuffPost Live, Al Jazeera, Voice of Russia and Colorado Public Television. His writing has been published in The Wall Street Journal, The Denver Post, The Sacramento Bee, The Orange County Register, Real Clear Markets, reason.com, and other print and online outlets. He also serves as co-editor of Reason Foundation's Annual Privatization Report (reason.org/apr) and Innovators in Action (reason.org/innovators) publications.

Prior to joining Reason Foundation, Harris worked at the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation. He earned a BA in Economics from Pepperdine University, where he worked as a research assistant to Dr. Luisa Blanco at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy.


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