Paper or Plastic? That’ll Cost You a Quarter.

Last week, I attended in the Santa Clara County Cities Association. This association has a representative from every city in Santa Clara County. In my view, a good portion of the time is spent uniting all the cities to advocate state and federal policy- makers on policies or bills that help Santa Clara county cities.  At this meeting, the Recycling and Waste Reduction Commission (RWRC) of Santa Clara County presented the concept of banning plastic bags. The idea is to come up with a policy that could be adopted uniformly through the entire county. But each city would have to adopt and implement the policy. The hope is that each city would adopt it as is or with limited changes, so that the entire county would be on the same page by April 22nd of this year (Earth Day).

The representative from Monte Sereno said that city’s council is in favor of it, but later confessed that they actually don’t have commercial stores that would be effected…funny.

So, the problem as you many know, is that plastic bags litter the environment, clog drains, take centuries to decompose and for the most part cannot be recycled. Also, these single-use bags, plastic or paper, require higher consumption of natural resources, generate greenhouse gases, and use petroleum which we as a country typically import from countries that we don’t always trust.

After stakeholder input was completed, the RWRC came up with the idea that both paper and plastic bags would no longer be free. That by charging for single-use bags we would modify the behavior of consumers to instead use a reusable bag. The thought is that under this new policy, if you were to go to a grocery store or retail store and did not have your reusable hemp bag, then you would pay 25 cents for a plastic or paper bag. If you were doing a big shopping spree at the grocery store and needed 12 bags you would only have to pay for the first eight for a maximum charge of $2 per visit. The 25 cents would be split between the store and the government. The store would get five cents and the county or the city would get 20 cents. The 20 cents would go toward enforcement of the new policy. It is not clear whether the county would enforce the implementation or the city. Who do you think would be more or less effective to oversee this new policy, if adopted—cities or the county?  (Personally, I picture Boss Hogg of the show Dukes of Hazzard doing the enforcement).

The 25 cents would essentially be a fee passed on to the consumer which could only be spent on enforcement of the policy since it is a fee and not a general-purpose tax. The average consumer uses 300 bags a year which would be $75. Would $75 change your behavior? Would you carry a large over sized IKEA like bag with you to Valley Fair or Oakridge?

Exemptions would be on produce/fish/poultry/beef or take-out food. Also, people on welfare would be exempt from paying.
I don’t remember ever getting a bag at Costco; they usually just stack everything in the cart or some random odd-shaped cardboard box and then I shove the items all over the car and do 20 trips back and forth between my car and my kitchen.

From my perspective, there is value in a plastic bag after you purchase something. I just used plastic bags to put away all my Christmas lights. I also use them to pick up dog poo. Actually, I keep a couple bags in my car so when I see an irresponsible dog owner who lets their dog poop on someones yard without cleaning it up I pull up and ask them if they need a bag for the gift they just left the resident. So far they all say yes.

My Dad, who grew up during the depression, loves plastic bags to organize all his clutter that he keeps because he does not like to throw things away (you know the type). I can imagine my Dad in the future at the Safeway parking lot selling his extra plastic bags out of his trunk for 10 cents each.

Charging for bags will not end litter. The only way to solve litter is by having Singapore-style laws where the penalties are high enough to discourage deviant behavior even when no one is looking. In the end, if I find value in the plastic bag then I am OK with paying for it. What about you? We are still in the outreach phase so what do you think?



  1. The last thing we need is another tax, of which the plastic bag “fee” really is. Just like how CRV never went away with the advent of recycling, these nickel and dime taxes and fees collectively add up the cost of living in this state until people just move out.

    The solution to the litter problem is… wait for it… enforce the existing laws against litter. Obviously the current penalty is too low. Let’s enforce the laws already on the books before we burden the taxpayers with more.

  2. Once again government’s “solution” to a problem is to put the onus on business instead of attacking those who cause the problem.

    The litter problem is not caused by the businesses; it’s caused by the litterers.  We see signs on the highways that there is supoposedly a fine for littering.  Other than Arlo Gurthrie, has anyone ever been cited for littering?

    Yes, I know cops have better things to do.  But we keep getting more and more laws and les and less enforcement.  Does anyone know of a person who has been cited for violating the hands-free cell phone law?  There may be a few, of course; but I doubt that it’s more than a few, especially in comparison to the number of people who flout the law.  Not a day goes by that I don’t see at least a dozen people talking on a cell phone while driving, and it’s not hands-free.

    How about an Avoid the Thirteen program against litterers?

  3. How is solving San Jose’s huge deficit coming along?  Put the bag issue on hold until the current ecomomic crisis is behind us.

  4. I see that Lew Wolff is being bashed by the unamed registered lobbyist and lawyer that writes San Jose Revealed.  I also notice that you, Pierluigi, are being bashed as well.

    I think SJR has a crush on Tom McEnery and all this writing is his way of working off his unrequited crush.

  5. It is not just about litter.  The consumption of plastic bags is a huge drain on petroleum resources at a time that we are trying to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels.  We should find ways to encourage the use of reusable bags, which are convenient and cheap.  A small fee on the use of a plastic bag will encourage more people to bring their own bags to the store.  Then if you really need plastic bags for home use, you can buy a few.  I use them too, for cat litter.  But for every one I use, there are 20 extras.  It is hard for me to believe that you find a practical use for every plastic bag you receive at the store.

  6. Pierluigi,
    Thanks for driving around with bags in your car, so that irresponsible people with dogs don’t litter other people’s property. If you do a way with plastic bags, just how are we supposed to clean up after our dogs? While it is true that plastic is very bad for wild life, many dead animals swallow plastic bags, and the plastic rings that hold soda together, but that comes primarily from the fact that people litter, or don’t seal their dumpsters well, or that we dump litter into the ocean, and in land fills. (Not to mention that animals are being driven out of their natural habitats due to over building, and are hunting through garbage cans, and dumpsters for food.)  Aren’t our garbage cans, and recycle bins made out of heavy “plastic”? 

    I have to agree with JMO on this one. You can create all kinds of laws, but without enforcement it is just a waste of time. The way to reach people is threw their pocket books. If they break the law, fine em! Otherwise, just shut up about it.

    I have purchased canvass bags, and bags from Trader Joes to use when shopping. If I remember them, I bring them to the store with me. I hate litter, I fully support the green vision, but even I forget to bring my bags to the store.
    Like your Dad, I put my Christmas lights in plastic bags, or things I’m storing, even though I have “plastic” containers too. Is there a difference between plastic bags and plastic containers? Or plastic Tupperware? Will I be paying a fee for buying plastic bowls, cups, and plates too? Will businesses be charged for packaging things we purchase from them in plastic, you know like a packaging plastic fee?  And then will they pass that fee on to the consumer via higher prices for merchandise?

    I think you can see where this is going right?

  7. I’m not a germ-a-phobe like Howie Mandell, but it occured to me…what about the hygene angle on this idea?  You hand your bag of germs to the bagger who then bags my groceries!  I’m guessing the grocery workers will all soon be wearing gloves.

    If everyone had a brain and acted responsibly we wouldn’t need all of these new laws, taxes (sorry, “fees”).

    Pete Campbell

  8. I remember back 20 plus years ago, when I use to work at a grocery store, and there was a big push to go from tradition paper bags to plastic bags. The plastic bags were suppose to be so much more environmentally friendly as opposed to the paper bags. Now it has come full circle, just as in the 1970’s when we were supposedly on the verge of the next ice age. I say go back to the traditional paper bags which can be recycled. 25 years ago we did not have the paper recycling we do now, so paper bags makes much more sense now than it did back then. We don’t need another tax, I mean “fee”, for a grocery bag; the cost of this is already figured into the price of the groceries. We don’t need another unenforceable statute on the books (don’t tell the Duraflame police but I burned a log a couple weeks ago on a “spare the air” no burn night). Instead, if people bring in their own bags, deduct the price of the bag from the grocery bill.

  9. We are becoming an increasingly Orwellian world. Our government believes it can assume responsibility for individual behavior. This ultimately doesn’t work. People (not government) have to be the solution.

    Rather than trying to encourage proper behavior through taxation, how about focusing on educating our citizens on the issues? If they understand, they will behave appropriately. Perhaps somebody will come up with a bamboo bag, or some other easily & quickly renewable source.

    What we don’t need is another bucket of money for government to waste.

  10. #9- Pat,
    I wish education on important topics resulted in people doing the right thing, but it doesn’t. JMO is right, texting while driving, and people using hand held cell phones are against the law, but people just don’t care. There has been a lot of coverage in the media on the dangers of doing so, but very few people are complying. We live in a society filled with people suffering from a strong sense of entitlement. Until that changes, enforcement is the only real answer to lawbreakers, or as you’ve suggested, a new type of easily and quickly renewable material is discovered.
    In India or Africa, I think it is, they use elephant waste to make paper products. It sounds gross, but they sterilize it and save a lot of trees from dying. Just another suggestion to add to the pot!

  11. #9 opined: “If they understand, they will behave appropriately.”  Holy Pollyanna, Batman, what world does he live in???!!!

    So, then, Pat, murderers, rapists, robbers, gang punks, litterers, etc., simply don’t understand?

    Thank god you didn’t get elected.

  12. I believe customers should get a credit for every bag they bring and use to take home their groceries. Some stores already provide a small credit (.05).

    On the premise of changing consumer behavior, I’d like to see stores increase the credit to .25 per bag AND also charge customers .25 per bag if they don’t bring their own in.

    NO EXEMPTIONS!! I think all consumers should contribute to this environmental effort by recycling and getting credit for their take-home bags or paying the nominal charge if they don’t recycle. Also, it will be too late to start programs like this “later”—after this or that gets fixed. We need to start these programs NOW.

    Last, I’d prefer to let the store keep the full amount received (.25 per bag) instead of having to set up yet another program (for enforcement) that has to be created, staffed, trained, and maintained.

    Thank you for asking Pierluigi. Now, I have a question for you…when will San Jose ban those nasty styrofoam take-out containers and require take-out food be put in green alternatives—which are readily available.


  13. This is very odd. So I buy my own bags beforehand and bring them to the store with me.

    Besides which, based only on your article, how is it that we have quantified the solution but not the problem? How much petroleum, natural resources, and landfill space do bags really take up?

  14. They started charging for bags in Ireland and the subsequent decrease in litter was very noticeable.

    It doesn’t cost the store anything. They’d start charging for something they give away for free now.

  15. #11

    Hi Tina,

    Styrofoam is on the work plan for the green vision. Staff will be coming back with policy suggestions on this. We are having a Green Vision study session update on Feb 6, 2009.

  16. In the interest of full disclosure, posting #12 was posted by a paid lobbyist for the american chemistry council and other groups adamantly opposed to either a ban or fee on reusable bags and thus the comment should be read with that understanding.

  17. Do it! Do it yesterday!

    Plastic grocery bags are such a waste. Besides being a waste, they’re poor quality. The re-usable shopping bags that I use at the store hold over 2x as many groceries. They’re easier to carry into the house and I can usually take all of my weekly groceries into the house in one trip because of it.

    Sometimes I forget my bags. When I do that I buy 1 or 2 re-usable bags at checkout and add it to my collection.

    Enforcement of litter laws hasn’t worked in the past, we still have litter. There is a low-cost alternative to this (bring your own bags) and those that like having bags can pay $0.25 – $2 per trip. I fail to see who would be harmed by this fee.

    Also, I don’t think welfare people should be excluded. If you must make special accommodations for certain low-income groups, give them half a dozen bags for free.

    The $0.20 for the city should mostly go towards promotional pricing on bags and litter removal, not enforcement.

    #11 I agree that polystyrene needs to be banned. There are alternatives and polystyrene recycling is costly (though I’m sure most of it ends up in the landfill).

    even if it’s unpopular with people on SJI, it’s the right thing to do. If it comes down to it, I’ll personally give you $2 so that you can buy a roll of 50 dog doo-doo bags. I applaud you calling out irresponsible people.

    FYI – I’ve been told (haven’t confirmed) that Goodwill stores will take your used grocery bags and re-use them for shoppers at their stores. This is a re-use of the bags and keeps Goodwill from purchasing new ones.

  18. In theory the idea is a very good one-who doesn’t want a cleaner environment?  I see the fee as just a regressive tax that would be unenforceable.  Proponents may argue the obvious value of a cleaner environment, but it will lead to a muddying of the waters of moral goodness.  What would the city do with the monies collected?  Would they go to cleaning up the city?  Why should non-litters have to pay for those who litter?

    As a retail merchant, the only cost effective way to count the plastic bags and differentiate them from paper would be to pass the 25 cent cost directly to the customer, in other words to ring them up at the register. These monies then would be given directly to the city.  Therein lies the potential for lawlessness.  The merchant is then on an honor system to report and pay the actual plastic bags used.  Unlike CRV where the plastic or glass container is collected directly from the wholesaler, plastic bag vendors are too numerous and a local city has little or no authority to collect their quarters from them. Further, unscrupulous merchants would have a license to steal/under report and pocket the monies collected. Consumers will have to pay a higher cost in a recessionary economy, and because the bag is disposable (OOPS, I meant “recyclable”), there is no real incentive to not litter those 25 cent bags anyway.  The moral murkiness continues because litterers are not held accountable, just the non-litterers who have to pay as well as collect monies.  Again, are the monies collected slated for cleaning up the city?

  19. How can they believe this is a fee?  This is a tax that the retailer will have to pay.  Customers will consider the fee as a cost of doing business.  And, it will cost the retailer even more in the infrastructure necessary for tracking and reporting of bag fees.

  20. This is beyond ridiculous. Retailers won’t make money from the 5 cents per bag. In fact, it will cost them more to run their businesses.

    If everything wasn’t so overpackaged, we wouldn’t end up with so many plastic bags when we shop. Does a toy really need to be encased in a hard plastic armor? No. And if it wasn’t, they could fit twice as much stuff in the plastic bag.

    Personally, I try to cut down on the number of bags I end up with. I tell the clerk bagging my groceries not to put large items like milk in a bag. I won’t take a bag at all if I only have two or three items. If I’ve already got a bag from another store, I’ll just put my new purchase in *that* bag.

    This makes me really annoyed. In a typical month, I buy about 16 bags of groceries. That would add up to $4 a month, or $48 per year. Then I’d also have to BUY plastic garbage bags, so that I can clean the litterbox and line my garbage can with something that won’t leak. I currently use Target bags for these purposes. And whenever I have extras, I take them to Target to be recycled.

    If more stores had a bag recycling drop-off, I really believe more bags would be recycled.

  21. I remember seeing all the plastic bags stuck in the trees along the Guadalupe downtown last year after a heavy rainfall raised the river. UGLY!!!

    I admit, I would find it a nuisance to carry canvas bags when I go shopping, but I would do it if I had to pay 25¢ for each disposable bag. And so would almost everyone else. So I support the fee, as I think it will go far to help reduce the litter.

    • Good. Sometimes a little inconvenience goes a long way to make our world a little better. Besides, I’ve been using canvas bags for quite awhile and it’s really not inconvenient at all.

  22. It may be a long time coming, but the reduction/elimination of plastic bags will eventually happen.  Instead of dragging our feet, why don’t we as a city take point on this?  San Jose, with it’s Green Vision professing the desire to lead the world in this type of issue, has the opportunity to demonstrate leadership by being among the first to eliminate plastic bags.

    Once you get used to it, going without plastic bags is really not that hard.  I keep several in my car so they are always available when I shop.  I even have a nylon bag small enough to fit into a clutch handbag, so I really don’t want to hear about how it is too hard to carry reusable bags around.

    As for exempting welfare recipients, I think this is a bad idea.  Their carrying around plastic bags will then be an announcement of their status, which is humiliating.  How about the city issues each new welfare recipient with a reusable canvas bag and a little nylon bag for purse or pocket?

    I am willing to (and do) spend a few dollars for a year’s worth of animal poo clean up bags.  I’d pay more for the biodegradable bags I’ve heard of but don’t know where to purchase.

    I can even see the reusable bag as a fashion accessory, with branding and logos (this already exists to some extent).  Part of making the change is getting people to think it is cool.