The people of Washington have the opportunity on November 3rd to tell state lawmakers that they do not support efforts to raise taxes. Advisory Vote 32, which will appear before all Washington voters on the general election ballot, allows them to advise the legislature to either “maintain” or “repeal” a recently enacted bill that will soon impose a new statewide bag tax.
Advisory Votes in Washington are non-binding measures that give taxpayers the chance to share their opinions about recently enacted tax laws. However, they do not guarantee any actions will be taken.
AV 32 will show how the public feels about Senate Bill 5323, a new law that, on January 1, 2021, will force retailers to collect a “pass-through charge” of 8-cents per bag for recycled paper and reusable film plastic carryout bags. On January 1, 2026, that tax will increase to 12 cents per bag for film plastic bags. SB 5323 also bans retailers from distributing single-use plastic bags.
It is unsurprising that only a handful of states have such bag taxes and/or bans in place. A closer analysis of these misguided policies shows that bag taxes and bans result in a number of negative consequences, while failing to accomplish their ostensible goal of helping the environment.
Los Angeles experienced the adverse economic consequences associated with excessive bag regulations. Following the enactment of a bag ban there, Los Angeles retail stores decreased their employment by 10% and saw an average 6% decrease in revenues. A report from the National Center for Policy Analysis, A Survey on the Economic Effects of Los Angeles County’s Plastic Bag Ban, explains:
“Banning plastic bags reduces employment; provides an unfair advantage to retailers in one geographic area over another; leads to the theft of store shopping carts and shopping baskets; results in customers using more plastic produce bags (thus undercutting the effect of the ban); increases prices for consumers; decreases profit for producers; and decreases economic activity in the area.”
Indeed, the costs of providing more expensive reusable bags are often pushed onto consumers in the form of higher prices or are borne by workers in the form of fewer jobs and lower wages. This is likely already starting to affect the state of Washington.
Taxing the use of reusable paper and film plastic bags, as is currently set to happen in Washington under SB 5323, will only make matters worse. Particularly now, as the people of Washington have already been struggling from months of forced shutdowns to slow the spread of the virus. The last thing they need is to face higher costs at the grocery store due to an 8-cent per bag tax.
Adding insult to injury, numerous studies have found that efforts such as SB 5323 do not actually help the environment. The Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark, in a 2018 study, Life Cycle Assessment of grocery carrier bags, notes that, “[h]eavier multiple-use carrier bags such as composite and cotton bags obtain the highest environmental impacts across all impact categories.”
Specifically, the study finds that a polypropylene bag (the most common type of reusable bag) needs to be reused 37 times in order to balance its harmful environmental impact with that of a single-use plastic bag. Further, the study notes that a paper bag would have to be reused 43 times and a cotton bag – which these bans and taxes ultimately hope to force consumers to use – would have to be reused over 7,100 times in order to be considered more environmentally friendly than a single-use plastic bag.
Unfortunately for residents of the Evergreen State, SB 5323 is already taking effect. Single-use plastic bags will be banned at the end of the year, and the tax increases are on schedule to take effect. AV 32 will at least give voters an opportunity to tell lawmakers that they do not like the decision to raise taxes.