RALEIGH — Opponents say a tax on plastic bags being explored by the Raleigh City Council would be “extraordinarily regressive,” could cost consumers $1.8 million annually, would not help the environment, and may be unconstitutional.
“We’re just of the belief that $1.8 million should be spent on groceries and not telling people how to carry their groceries home,” said Mark Daniels. “I’m not of the opinion that we should have government dictate what is better for a consumer.”
Daniels is chairman of the American Progressive Bag Alliance representing the national plastic bag industry, and senior vice president of sustainability at Hilex Poly, the nation’s largest manufacturer and closed-loop recycler of plastic retail carryout bags. He said the Raleigh market compares to Washington, D.C., which in 2013 collected roughly $2 million in plastic bag taxes.
Andy Ellen, president and general counsel of the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association, said a plastic bag tax would be “an unconstitutional regulation of trade and commerce in violation of the North Carolina Constitution,” and might lead to “potential litigation” if the city attempts to enact the measure.
Ellen said the state constitution prohibits local government from regulating commerce or trade, and bars the state from regulating commerce and trade on a local level. Nor is there statutory taxing authority from the General Assembly to impose the fee.
Council asked to consider
Raleigh City Councilman Bonner Gaylord raised the possibility of a nickel or dime tax on plastic bags in a June 18 query to the City Manager’s Office.
Gaylord asked whether a “rational nexus” existed to charge a nickel or dime per bag to raise money for stream cleanup.
“The council hasn’t asked us to take any action on this,” said Dan Howe, assistant city manager. “Mr. Gaylord asked for some information on where this is taking place, and how it works, and we provided that information, and that’s pretty much where it’s sitting right now.” City Council next meets Tuesday at 1 p.m.
Gaylord said family matters prevented him from keeping a scheduled interview for this story.
In the city’s e-mail response to Gaylord’s query, Howe said the Solid Waste Services Department has discussed the matter.
Attached to Howe’s e-mail was a list compiled by the Earth Policy Institute of 172 local governments representing some 20 million Americans where plastic bag bans or taxes are in effect.
Waste impact minor
“A Raleigh grocery bag tax is an example of misguided policy. They’re thinking about taxing a product that contributes less than one-half of 1 percent of the municipal waste stream, and that’s according to the Environmental Protection Agency” and a variety of other scientific studies around the country, Daniels said.
One reason the volume of plastic bag litter is low is high levels of reuse and recycling, Daniels said. More than 1 billion pounds of plastic bags and polyethylene film have been recycled in 11 of the past 12 years, making it “the fastest growing recycling infrastructure in the U.S.”
He said his company, Hilex Poly, spends tens of millions of dollars a year reprocessing the product, and studies show 70 percent of plastic bags are reused “for hundreds of reasons” by nine out of 10 Americans.
According to the website A Bag’s Life, which publishes a plastic bag recycling site locator, there are 85 drop-off sites within 10 miles of downtown Raleigh, and 197 within 25 miles.
Environmental, economic impacts
Daniels said plastic bags have a smaller carbon footprint than paper bags. About 95 percent of the 600 million to 700 million reusable bags shipped into the country every year come from China. Most plastic bags are domestically produced by 30,000 U.S. workers.
Plastic bags are made from ethane, a natural gas waste product that is converted to polyethylene. Reusable bags are made from oil-based plastic polypropylene, which is not recyclable.
A 2007 “life-cycle analysis” comparing the overall costs of recycled plastic bags with paper bags using 30-percent recycled materials found — per 1,000 units — manufacturing paper bags required nearly four times more energy, produced double the greenhouse-gas emissions, resulted in five times more materials in the municipal waste stream, and used 17 times more fresh water.
Then there are health concerns about foodborne illnesses transmitted by reusable bags resulting from meat juice leaks or other food particles that remain in unwashed bags.
Researchers from the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University in 2010 found bacteria contamination in nearly all the reusable bags they studied. Half contained coliform bacteria, and 12 percent contained e-coli. In 2010 a girls soccer team in Oregon was sickened in a norovirus outbreak linked to a reusable bag.
“I know North Carolina is business-friendly,” Daniels said. “I’m hopeful that as an industry we have an opportunity to sit with the City Council members in Raleigh and have these kind of frank discussions about scientific facts rather than the emotional, Internet-driven mythology that’s out there.”
As an example, Daniels noted Andres Cozar, a research scientist at the University of Cadiz, Spain, who originated the theory that there were 1 million tons of plastics swirling around the world’s oceans. Cozar and a team of scientists embarked on a global research mission to document the pollution.
Their studies found only 7,000 tons, yet the environmentalists continue to cite the million-ton “garbage patch” theory refuted by Cozar’s own research.
Daniels also pointed out that the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center on Topsail Island, which since 1996 has maintained an index of sick and injured turtles, has not documented a case of a turtle being injured by a plastic bag.
The risk to sea turtles and other marine life was cited to justify passing North Carolina’s only plastic bag ban, in the Outer Banks counties of Currituck, Dare, and Hyde. The ban took effect in 2010. Merchants there are required to use paper bags made of recycled material, and must give a nickel credit to shoppers bringing in their own reusable bags.
“We think that the bag ban on the Outer Banks has been a total, utter failure,” Ellen said.
Impact on businesses
A study by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources “has shown no decline in plastic bags found on the beaches or in that area, but what you have seen is a tremendous increase in costs to the retailers, which ultimately get passed on to the consumers,” Ellen said. Those include higher costs for paper vs. plastic bags.
Merchants also had to update cash register software at their own expense to account for the reusable bag rebate, and chain stores must adjust their bookkeeping systems to account for differences unique to their Outer Banks stores, Ellen said. One retailer paid more than $40,000 to adjust its computer software while issuing only two reusable bag credits the first year.
Retail Merchants Association surveys of members on the Outer Banks found “less than 3 percent or 4 percent of the transactions actually involved someone bringing in a reusable bag to a grocery store, even after all the publicity and hype,” Ellen said. And visitors continue to bring plastic bags from elsewhere.
Merchants believe recycling is a better option, he said, and where recycling bins are set up they “are overflowing.”
Ellen was displeased with an early July editorial by the Raleigh News & Observer vigorously supporting a plastic bag fee or ban.
“Maybe the News & Observer would like to lead the charge and get rid of the plastic bags they throw [in driveways wrapping newspapers], sometimes two at a time,” Ellen said.
A plastic bag fee in Raleigh likely would hamper a long-held community desire, he said.
“Everybody’s clamoring for a downtown Raleigh grocery store,” Ellen said. “This is one more impediment.”
Dan E. Way (@danway_carolina) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.