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The Bag Tax Rebellion

Weekend Essay.

Seattle made headlines earlier this year by imposing a fee on grocery bags. The move has all the hallmarks of a well-meaning local initiative, a way Seattleites can do their part to save the planet.

By imposing the fee (some call it a tax) of 20 cents per bag, the city expects people will use fewer disposable plastic or paper grocery bags. That will cut down on garbage headed for landfill and reduce the carbon emissions used to manufacture and ship the bags.

But if it’s such a no-brainer, why are some of Seattle’s green-conscious citizens rebelling? No sooner had the City Council passed the bag tax than a citizen’s initiative circulated to repeal the tax and quickly gained 20,000 signatures, more than enough to put the fee to a public vote.

Opponents have decried imposing fees at the checkstand that may hurt people on food stamps. Some object to new taxes at a time when the city is already asking for increases to pay for basic services like water and garbage. Others have said that it’s the old nanny state meddling yet again.

What was put forward as a relatively innocuous baby step toward sustainability had infuriated many people — and not just the chemical industry that backs the repeal. Whether taxing shopping bags is an idea whose time has come remains to be seen. But the mini-furor over it is indicative of a larger problem with environmental strategies.

We know now that we are all part of environmental problems — that billions of small decisions and actions can lead to major problems. The drip, drip, drip of oil from thousands of cars or the poop of a million kitty cats can add to the pollution of Puget Sound. Thus little changes in mass behavior can have big impacts.

A great example came up in the presidential campaign when President-elect Barack Obama pointed out that if every driver in America kept their car tires properly inflated, it would save roughly 1.25 billion gallons of gas — about what we would gain from the offshore drilling his opponent, Republican John McCain, had been touting.

The truth is, we know that small, incremental changes in behavior can make a huge difference if everyone goes along with them.

But mandating such changes can have negative consequences. One is bag-tax backlash. Hitting consumers with fees at the micro level has the tendency to irritate people. Bag taxes, toll roads, recycling fees: Are we going to monetize every aspect of our behavior? That’s an extremely conservative idea; not liberalism run amuck but a kind of libertarianism that views every citizen’s action as a financial transaction in a free-market world. That, in turn, can lead to an erosion of belief in the commonweal, the sense that we’re all in this together.

On the other hand, despite everyone’s professed best intentions, small changes rarely happen voluntarily. They require a carrot or a stick, sometimes both. Those who back the bag ban know that a voluntary system won’t achieve its goals.

If we focus on small, easily adopted ideas such as taxing bags or banning bottled water at City Hall, we also run the risk of appearing to be obsessed with the trivial while Rome — or the planet — burns. At the same time we’re fiddling over grocery sacks, a recent government study indicates the city has major problems with pollution along traffic corridors in the South End. Live near a highway (Interstate 5, Highway 99) and your cancer risks “skyrocket.” Why isn’t this environmental issue front and center?

You can, of course, tackle both. But annoying people with trivial crusades tends to make people more cynical when the focus should be on bigger stuff. Landfill is important, but cancer rates in poorer neighborhoods trump that. If the bag tax is in place, it will reduce the city’s landfill by half a train load per year — roughly 50 rail cars of grocery-bag garbage. Sounds like a lot, yet the city fills 100 train cars per day with garbage, according to the city staffers I talked to. In other words, the battle against grocery bags, even if won, is a minor skirmish in war with much bigger battles to be fought.

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