Is More Plastic Bag Recycling Education Preferable To A “Bag Tax?”

can we increase plastic bag recycling rates?

New York City is the latest US municipality considering a tax on plastic shopping bags. Specifically, the bill under consideration by the City Council would impose a 10-cent fee for each plastic or paper bag used by shoppers. The concept’s clear: if you bring your own reusable bags to the store, you don’t have to pay the fee; you also don’t have to pay it if you’re paying for groceries with SNAP, WIC, or other government assistance. The law, like others passed around the world, aims to harness the power of the market to decrease consumption of bags.

Is this the best approach to dealing with plastic bag litter, clogging of storm water systems, and pollution of waterways and oceans? One group of pastors doesn’t think so. On March 23rd, the Baptist Ministers’ Conference of Greater New York & Vicinity announced its opposition to the tax. For these ministers, the proposed bag fee represents a regressive tax on the city’s poorest people:

Our congregants are no strangers to poverty, and the Baptist Ministers Conference have seen the families we serve struggle to get by. That’s why we’ve banded together to fight for policies that lift up low-income communities of color, like raising the minimum wage and opposing a 10-cent plastic bag tax that would unfairly penalize our congregants. Ten cents a bag adds up quickly for families below the poverty line – our membership has voted to stand with vulnerable New Yorkers, instead of creating new hardships.

I know consumption taxes like this one are challenging in terms of their impacts on poor communities and people, and that the environmental controversies surrounding plastic shopping bags are hardly settled. What I found interesting about the Minister’s Conference position (which is also that of Bag the Tax NYC) is that they propose improving recycling education rather than implementing the 10-cent fee.

No doubt, the rates for recycling bags could improve: since they can’t be included in curbside programs, they’re a bit more inconvenient to recycle. The best numbers I can find show a 7% rate. Of course, this doesn’t include consumer-level reuse, which means the bags still end up in landfills, but not before serving at least one other purpose (for which another, possibly single-use, materials would’ve been used). Reuse doesn’t always keep the bags from becoming litter, though.

But I think there’s something to the claim that these solutions are created by those who can afford a few extra dollars on their grocery bill, or to purchase reusable bags. I know I have trouble understanding not being able to afford such things… but that doesn’t mean that it’s not the case. As with climate change and other environmental issues, it doesn’t seem right or moral to ask those least able to do so to contribute to the solution at the same rate as those of us who wouldn’t have to think twice about the extra expense.

No doubt, both sides in this argument have simplified the issue to serve their interests; at the same time, there are social justice concerns at play with this environmental issue. Do you think a bag tax best serves the broader community? Or it ask too much from the neediest among us? Let us know what you think, and why…

Photo credit: Shutterstock

About the Author

Jeff McIntire-Strasburg is the founder and editor of sustainablog. You can keep up with all of his writing at Facebook, and at