The Power of the Plastic Bag Tax by Chloe Meyers

Plastic has penetrated all aspects of daily life and is one of the most commonly used materials on the planet. The production of plastic is exponentially increasing, and it is now estimated that we produce the weight of the entire human population in plastic each year.[1] Plastic can be found in clothing, appliances, transportation, medicine, and even food.[2] Half of all plastic produced is used for single-use purposes, which includes plastic bags, bottles, and containers.[3] Although single-use plastics are often used just once for a few minutes, they accumulate and last on the planet for hundreds of years.[4] Worldwide, 500 million plastic bottles are used every year and more than one million plastic bags are used each minute.[5] Additionally, plastic bags are used for only 15 minutes on average before they are discarded.[6] To combat this growing and alarming issue, the federal government should implement a nationwide plastic bag tax to ensure each state is doing its part to fight plastic waste. This tax will mandate that each state implements a 5-cent plastic bag fee, which individual states or cities can increase or add an additional ban onto.

When single-use plastic is disposed of, it will either end up in a landfill or the ocean. Between 1950 to 2015, only 9% of plastic was recycled overall and 79% ended up in landfills, where plastic can take up to 1000 years to degrade.[7],[8] Once in a landfill, plastic can either accumulate, clutter around drains and enter rivers and the ocean, or blow away and land in the ocean.[9] Littered plastic is most often carried by rainwater and wind to the nearest streams and rivers.[10] Additionally, smaller plastics such as cotton buds and wipes can be flushed down the drain, sending it to the ocean.[11] The bottom line is that if plastic is not disposed of properly, chances are it will find its way into the ocean. It is estimated that over 8 million tons of plastic enter the ocean every year and over 90% of seabirds have plastic in their stomachs.[12]

In order to combat the widespread damage of single-use plastic, many cities and states have adopted single-use plastic bag taxes or bans. While a ban on plastic bags may seem like a more effective solution to stopping plastic pollution, there can often be unforeseen consequences such as an increase in paper bag sales.[13] For example, New York’s plastic bag ban has drastically increased the demand in paper bags and it is estimated that retailers will need roughly 3 to 4 billion paper bags to meet these requests.[14] Plastic bag taxes, on the other hand, have shown to be an effective way to incentivize shoppers to bring their own bags from home or not use a bag at all. Further, through altered consumer behaviors in response to plastic bag taxes, plastic production will decrease due to a reduced demand. In its place, alternative and more sustainable materials can be used.

California became the first state to pass a statewide bag ban in 2014, which included a 10-cent tax on paper and plastic bags. A study by CalRecycle showed that within 6 months of the law’s enactment, there was an 85% reduction in the amount of plastic bags used and in 86% of transactions, customers brought their own bag.[15] Chicago’s 7-cent bag tax in 2017 reduced plastic bag usage in stores by 27.7% within one year and increased the usage of reusable bags by 15.5%.[16] The University of Chicago conducted a study surrounding Chicago’s plastic bag tax and found that consumers’ behavior shifts were largely due to 3 main mechanisms: reference dependence, salience, and habit formation.[17] These all suggest that consumers were quick to notice the price change of plastic bags and made an effort to adjust their behavior to avoid the tax. In 2010, Washington D.C. implemented a 5-cent bag tax which led to sharp reductions in plastic bag usage. Within the first few months of the tax’s enactment, plastic bag usage dropped by 85%, however this figure has been speculated to be an overestimation due to the methods used to report usage.[18] Additionally, clean-ups around D.C. showed a 72% reduction in plastic bag pollution.[19]

It is clear from these examples that taxes on plastic bags make a significant impact on consumer behavior and help reduce single-use plastic pollution. Further, it takes relatively little time for consumers to adjust and adapt to the tax. While other states and cities have adopted bans and taxes to help reduce single-use plastic production and pollution, there are still many states that have not followed suit. In order to make the most powerful impact on plastic pollution, the U.S. should adopt a nationwide 5-cent plastic bag tax. Each state or city may choose to raise this tax or implement an additional plastic bag ban, however with a minimum tax all states will have some measure in place to combat plastic pollution. Still, the 5-cent bag tax in Washington D.C. has proven that 5 cents is enough to incite significant behavioral changes. In 2050, research indicates that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by weight.[20] It is imperative that the federal government take action on reducing the amount of plastic produced and polluted in order to combat this terrifying prediction and work towards a cleaner and more sustainable planet.



[1] Boris Worm et al., “Plastic as a persistent marine pollutant.” Annual Review of Environment and Resources, no. 42 (2017): 1-26.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “The Facts,” Plastic Oceans, accessed March 28, 2020,

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Roland Geyer, Jenna R. Jambeck, and Kara Lavender Law, “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made.” Science advances 3, no. 7 (2017): e1700782.

[8] “Recycling Coalition of Utah,” RCU, accessed April 11, 2020,

[9] “How Does Plastic End Up in the Ocean?” WWF, accessed March 28, 2020,

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] “The Facts,” Plastic Oceans, accessed March 28, 2020,

[13] Matthew Zeitlin, “Do plastic bag taxes or bans curb waste? 400 cities and states tried it out.” Vox, last updated August 27, 2019,

[14] “New York’s plastic bag ban is broken,” last updated February 4, 2020,

[15] “Study Shows California’s Statewide Plastic Bag Law a Success,” Surfrider Foundation, April 3, 2019,

[16] Tatiana Homonoff, Lee-Sien Kao, Christina Seybolt, “Skipping the Bag: Assessing the Impact of Chicago’s tax on disposable bags,” UChicago Urban Labs, September 2018,

[17] Ibid.

[18] Amy Brittain and Steven Rich, “Is D.C.’s 5-cent fee for plastic bags actually serving its purpose?” The Washington Post, May 9, 2015,

[19] Brielle Powers and Dani Grace, “District tax leads to sharp decrease in plastic bag usage,” The GW Hatchet, February 7, 2018,

[20] “The New Plastic Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics,” World Economy Forum, Ellen McArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company, 2016,

2 thoughts on “The Power of the Plastic Bag Tax by Chloe Meyers

  1. Hi Chloe,

    Thanks for your post on plastic bags! I’ve never considered the numbers behind plastic bag bans – but these numbers are great and it’s nice to hear that the policies have made such a big difference in places that have installed these policies. I agree that federal action would be the best way to get national action going – I wonder what’s the biggest barrier behind states that haven’t adopted this ban yet… is it cost or something else?

  2. Hi Chloe! Thanks for writing this awesome blog. I think the in-class activity we had about plastic bags in Durham was a great way to spark new ideas regarding potential solutions.

    This semester, I took BIO 205 (Marine Megafauna), and we spent a lot of time discussing the dangers of single-use and micro plastics on marine life. However, we also discussed the dangers of paper bags—something that’s often left out of the conversation on bags and pollution. Though paper bags do not pose the same risk to wildlife, their production is just as harmful, if not worse, than that of plastic bags. It takes more than four times the amount of energy to manufacture a paper bag than it does to make a plastic bag, which in turn, produces a higher concentration of toxic chemicals. Additionally, paper bags weigh more than their plastic counterparts, meaning transportation is less efficient and more costly, resulting in an increased carbon footprint. The carbon footprint of paper bags is further exacerbated by the fact that their manufacture requires deforestation.

    Because of this, I think the conversation on taxing grocery bags needs to be extended to include paper bags. Both paper and plastic bags have severe environmental impacts, and reusable bags are the only (current and readily available) sustainable alternative. Any future policymaking on plastic bags, whether state, federal, or local, should take the time to adjust for/include paper bags. Making sure these are incorporated in future bans/taxes will ensure that consumers are not simply swapping out one unsustainable option for another.

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