This op-ed originally appeared in the Orange County Register
In the Legislature, I’m forced to fight against proposed new taxes and Nanny State laws every day. While I usually avoid involving myself in city issues, this Monday night [Dec. 12] the Dana Point City Council will consider an ordinance that falls into both categories.
The ordinance would ban retail stores, including grocers, from providing consumers with fully recyclable plastic bags and “strongly encourages” them charge customers a fee for each paper bag – and places no limit on that fee. If council members adopt this they will allow a new tax on shoppers, deprive consumers of bag choice, and further bloat our local bureaucracy with another far-reaching government mandate.
With such a difficult economy and high local unemployment rate, now is not the time to increase grocery bills. Proponents have disguised this as an effort to improve the environment; however, a better, freedom-based solution would be to educate the public about the importance of recycling and to promote the proper use of reusable bags.
This ordinance violates the spirit – if not the letter – of Proposition 26 (approved by voters last year), which requires a two-thirds vote of the public for any new tax, defined as “any levy, charge, or exaction of any kind imposed by a local government.” Californians passed this measure because they are sick and tired of local governments circumventing laws and passing taxes as fees. And yet, most Dana Point council members seem poised to ignore the will of the voters by permitting a bag tax.
This ordinance will increase retailers’ cost of doing business – a cost that will be passed on to consumers – especially for smaller stores who cannot take advantage of bulk discounts on paper. I know of a Dana Point merchant who just spent $1,860 to purchase 5,000 plastic bags. If he was forced to switch to recyclable paper, that same order would cost him $4,725.
In 2007, San Francisco imposed a plastic-bag ban on supermarkets and pharmacies. A city-sponsored study showed that well after the ban went into effect plastic bags as a portion of city litter hadn’t changed – and was only 0.6 percent of the overall litter composition. Furthermore, just a few days ago even that most liberal city declined to extend the ban to smaller retailers because of the negative economic impact.
The Dana Point ordinance purports to ban “single use” plastic bags, but we know from everyday experience this is a misnomer. We reuse plastic bags for a variety of other purposes – taking lunches to work, as trash can liners and for cleaning up after our pets. If these plastic bags are no longer available, we’ll be forced to purchase other, more expensive plastic bags off-the-shelf for these purposes.
It’s also likely such an ordinance would require city expenditures to implement, monitor and audit the program. Does the city really want to spend valuable taxpayer money and use city resources to enforce a bag tax in perpetuity?
The truth is that there is a lot that can be done to curb the incidences of bag litter, like investing in more aggressive recycling programs. Currently, most major grocery and retail stores already collect plastic bags and wraps for recycling. The infrastructure is there; we just need to increase awareness and participation. If the city is willing to expend time, energy and resources on encouraging people to use reusable bags, wouldn’t it be better to build on existing plastic bag recycling efforts, instead of an intrusive, ineffective bag ban and tax that hurts consumers and our local economy?
Dana Point is a small city, and this costly ordinance puts the city’s merchants at a disadvantage with competitors just over the city boundaries, in terms of price and convenience.
Dana Point is on firm financial footing, the council is intelligent, thoughtful and hardworking, and residents have a longstanding reputation of being good environmental stewards. I would hope that the city remains focused on continuing in that tradition, not penalizing the majority for the careless actions of the few who litter. This is not the time to tax consumers at the checkout. Fortunately, there’s a better way and I trust the council will find a solution.