Changing Planet

Plastic Bag Taxes Don’t Hurt Low-Income People

My cousin Kelly Davis worked hard on the recent campaign to convince the government of Washington, D.C. to pass a “bag tax” on single-use plastic shopping bags within the district. Now, if D.C. shoppers want a bag with their purchase they have to pay a nickel.

Kelly told me opponents to the tax argued that it would disproportionally affect lower-income folks. Well I live and shop in a low-income part of the city, and I have never once heard a complaint about the bag charge from anyone who lives there, only from media pundits and those who live in the leafier parts of town.

I suspect that those who are struggling have more important things to worry about, like looking for work, making it on time to a second job, or caring for a sick relative. In all the hubbub about the proposed bag tax, did people ask low-income folks if the issue was really important to them? Or did they just rush to conclusion?


What I do see is a lot of people bringing their own bags to the store, stuffing groceries in backpacks and in carts, and toting items in their pockets.

Like a good number of D.C. residents, I don’t have a car, so I have to walk all my groceries home (I don’t buy a lot of liquids as a result). I put the heaviest items in the bottom of my backpack, which I use every day anyway. Then I layer everything else in two Baggu-style bags that I always have with me, in a pocket of my backpack. (They also fold up into their own pouches, to the size of a wallet, if that’s easier, though I normally don’t bother with that.)

The large handles and tough nylon of the bags makes them much easier to carry than plastic bags, which dig into the fingers and have a tendency to break. My bags sling right over my shoulders, which carry most of the weight.

And the best part? Both of those bags were free. I got one at a promo day at a zoo, and the other was a gift. If you don’t have one, you can get one for a few bucks at many different stores. If you don’t have a backpack, check your local thrift store. Canvas totes also work well for produce. They are sometimes given away free or can be picked up for a couple of dollars.

Get Real

Wanting to make sure green changes don’t negatively impact lower-income people is admirable, but we need to make sure it’s a real issue first. In my neighborhood, people seem just as likely to have reusable bags as in the fancy stores across town. A reusable bag is extremely affordable, and often free if one reuses packaging from another vendor. It’s easy enough for everyone to have one on hand; in the off chance that you forget, a nickel probably isn’t going to break your bank, unlike say, not having any health care.

Everyone needs clean air and water, and a litter-free place to live.

Check out this infographic on the hazards of plastic bags:

  • Ima Ryma

    To pay to use a plastic bag,
    Cuz that’s the wasteful thing to do.
    And one day the whole Earth will gag,
    But that’s some future stinkaroo.
    Right now it’s okay to pollute,
    If cash is paid into the pot.
    For all the have – a plan to suit,
    And what’s more pain for the have not!
    The plastic bag need disappear.
    Obama could order it done.
    By the time critics got in gear,
    The plastic bagless would have won.

    We humans must be forced today.
    No plastic bags – the only way.

  • Ken Holmes

    “Wanting to make sure green changes don’t negatively impact lower-income people is admirable, but we need to make sure it’s a real issue first.” The problem is, Brian, that you apparently don’t care whether using plastic bags is a “real issue”. it isn’t.

    the infographic you present is meaningless. It shows numbers out of context, misinformation, and blatantly wrong information. Number of bags isn’t important, but the environmental impact of the resources, manufacture, and disposal is. Compared to alternatives, plastic bags use far less resources and energy (OIL) and create less pollution than paper or reusable bags. The “12 million barrels of oil per year” to make bags thing gets tossed around a lot and sounds huge, but it’s about half of what we use every day to fuel our cars. A very small number. Not using oil to make plastic bags, and instead using ten times as much to make something else, is not a savings. Less plastic bags doesn’t equal less environmental harm. If you believe that, you are an idiot.

    The Garbage Patch? A myth reported in various places as the size of Texas to twice the size of the US, is completely misleading and mostly false. Yes, there is plastic in the ocean, and it accumulates in gyres, but the true size of the Pacific patch is about 1/10th the size of Texas. And it isn’t an island. And plastic bags make up less than 1% of all litter, so it’s hard to believe that all the plastic in the gyre is coming from bags. In case you haven’t noticed, practically all products are packaged in truly single use plastic. the checkout bag is the only thing you CAN reuse. And most people do reuse them. Just saying that we toss them after 12 minutes doesn’t make it true, it just makes you a liar. And just because an infographic exists, doesn’t mean it’s true.

    Next time, get some facts from somewhere besides JUST infographics and anti bag websites. It’s called research. Journalists and reporters used to know what that word meant.

  • Walter McPhedran

    Ken – Your comment would hold more weight if you weren’t marketing director of a American Plastic Manufacturing, a plastic bag manufacturer. The “facts” you cite are from studies funded by the plastic bag industry . Listening to you would be like taking advice from a mortgage broker about sub prime mortgages in 2005.

  • Eric

    Hey, I started bringing my own bag to the store (voluntarily) and I’ve saved at least 300 plastic bags from coming into my hands in a year (I used to get 5-6 a week, easily).

    So, how is that NOT saving resources and limiting pollution? That argument against is so dumb. It assumes everyone will start using paper. No, they’ll start carrying their own bags, like me and a lot of other people have already done. Pollution and waste will drop significantly.

    Want evidence for the 12-minute rule? I live in New York, and here it’s more like a 3-minute rule. Someone buys a soda and a bag of chips in the deli, get a plastic bag and a plastic straw wrapped in paper. They eat them and throw the can, plastic bag, plastic straw and empty chip bag into the corner garbage can. It’s more like 3-5 minutes, and you’ve got waste for 1,000 years.

    It’s lazy, irresponsible and shameless to continue this.

    And it’s so easy to change and cut the use of plastic bags by 90%. Know what? New York is next.

  • Bag the Plastic, NYC!

    The arguments against a plastic bag ban always assume the worst of Americans, and people in general.

    The facts: After plastic bags are banned, people start respecting what a plastic bag costs (because they have to buy one if they want one). They use less, learn to bring a reusable bag and pretty soon the waste is cut by an incredible percentage.

    It’s just takes common sense people to get behind it. Let’s stop choking the ocean with our plastic waste. A peitition to ban plastic bags in NYC:
    It’s time, America.

  • Lester Cotton

    I don’t mind reusing my own bags and helping the environment. I am just sick of peopke in Holkywood and politicians preaching about the environment and imposing fees while they are the biggest polluters!

  • Charles Walker

    Plastic bags allow the poor to carry home what little food they can afford on a bus, or on foot. I don’t know what planet you live on, but not everyone drives around in an electric powered automobile, that the battery was recently recharged by some power station that uses coal or crude oil. You are living in a false economy, and this idiot bag tax is just pissing off everyone. Sorry, I don’t have a LEXUS out in the parking lot where I can store my $35 Bear Grills limited edition, hand signed grocery bag. Personally, I think people who take mass transit to the grocery store, should be given a 10% discount on all food items, and a free carryout, just for not pissing away $50K on an electric car that ultimately uses fossil fuel to recharge its battery. How about a 10% tax on all electric vehicles that use electric power from power plants that use coal or petroleum? You tree huggers are not so happy now are you.

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