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Culture

The Feel-Good Paper-Bag Tax

A shopper holds her bags as she tries to hail a cab in New York City in 2011. (Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters)

New York City has enacted a five-cent tax on paper bags for most retail purchases, to go along with New York State’s total ban on plastic bags, both effective March 1, 2020. The idea is that without the nickel tax (pardon, I mean “fee”), consumers would just switch from plastic to paper, and they can’t be allowed to do that, at least not without punishment. I actually have a hard time getting too worked up about the paper-bag tax; it amounts to a modest increase in the sales tax, one that can be avoided if you really object to it. To be sure, it adds up; if you estimate one paper bag per resident per day, it works out to about $150 million a year. But if they didn’t charge us for paper bags, they would find something else to tax. And it’s a small price to pay for the peace of mind that comes from knowing that a dozen or so generations in the future, the bag you carried your groceries home in will be very slowly beginning to crumble in a landfill instead of remaining intact, like plastic.

In fact, as this evenhanded–by–New York Times–standards article explains, disposable plastic bags are less destructive to the environment (“a plastic bag doesn’t cause too much harm sitting in a landfill”) than disposable paper, durable-plastic, or cotton bags. The main problem with plastic bags is aesthetic: they’re “a highly visible sign of waste,” not to mention that “just last week, a dead sperm whale washed ashore in Indonesia with two dozen plastic bags in its gut, along with other trash.” It’s not clear how putting fewer plastic bags in landfills will save the whales, but never mind that, because these things aren’t supposed to make sense. The plastic-bag ban and the paper-bag tax, like most things in New York City politics, are ways to make people on the left feel virtuous, and never mind the expense or inconvenience for everyone else.

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