As lower-than-expected state revenue rolls in for 2019, many people are talking about the impact of Connecticut’s current 10-cent charge on carryout plastic bags. But for environmentalists and citizen activists across the state, the impact was always about getting plastic out of the environment, not about filling holes in the budget.
The shortfall in projected revenue generated through the bag fee is simply proof of what we’ve known all along: putting a fee on plastic bags is an effective approach at changing consumer behavior … and getting the public to say “no” to plastic bags.
We’ve known for years that plastic bags cause tremendous harm to our wildlife and marine environment. What readers may not know is that these bags also take up unnecessary space in the solid waste stream and create costly delays and infrastructure problems for municipal recyclers. Municipal recycling operations are often shut down to clear plastic bags that become clogged in sorting equipment, which wastes workers’ time and costs taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. This is just one of the many reasons why the legislature’s plan to disincentivize plastic bag use was embraced by environmental advocates, businesses, and municipal recyclers alike.
Regardless of what the most important benefit of the bag policy is, it’s clear that the shift in consumer behavior away from plastic bags is a major environmental success! This comes as no surprise, as one needs only to look at the experience of other places that have already enacted bag fees. Time and time again, a small fee on plastic bags is enough of an incentive to convince consumers to bring their own bags.
This seemingly small step toward promoting more sustainable consumer behavior is now having tremendous and obvious impacts on the amount of plastic we consume in our state.
The District of Columbia was one of the first to establish a law mandating a 5-cent fee on all single-use plastic and paper carryout bags in 2010. This resulted in a 60% reduction in single-use bag consumption in the first year. Similarly, a 5-cent fee on plastic checkout bags in Suffolk County, New York (effective Jan. 1, 2018) led to a drop in plastic bag use from 70% to 30% within the first month, while reusable bag use rose from just 5% to 43% among consumers.
Some may lament that the Connecticut bag fee is not generating the revenue they thought it would, however, it needs to be said that this was never about making shoppers pay for bags. The goal always has been to reduce plastic pollution. Arguably, the environmental and economic costs avoided through eliminating plastic bags far overshadows the amount of revenue that would be generated through such a policy. The law is significantly reducing the number of disposable plastic bags used in our state, which would otherwise pollute our communities and threaten our waterways.
A fee on plastic bags has also promoted changes in corporate policy. Many big-name grocery stores have already chosen to go beyond the law by completely doing away with plastic bags at the checkout counter, well in advance of the phase-out in 2021. Some have voluntarily added a fee for paper bags, contributing to incentivizing consumers to switch to reusable bags.
So let’s keep up the great work! Connecticut is making strides in reducing our plastic footprint, and we are poised to continue doing so by targeting wasteful polystyrene and other single-use plastics. Residents and businesses alike should be proud that Connecticut is doing its part to address the growing global plastic pollution crisis and continue to look for commonsense solutions that will help reduce our use of harmful single-use plastics, improve efficiency in our solid waste system and protect our environment.
Louis Rosado Burch is the Connecticut Program Director for the Citizens Campaign for the Environment.
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