Patchwork of plastic bag taxes and bans may be coming to Michigan

Patchwork of plastic bag taxes and bans may be coming to Michigan

Bag taxes and bans are bad for businesses and consumers, but are they any better for the environment?

Plastic shopping bags may be taxed or banned in Michigan if a bill passes overturning a 2016 law that currently prevents local communities from imposing their own bag rules.

“There was a push to ban. And then they banned banning. And now we are banning the banning of banning,” said state Rep. Robert Wittenberg, D-Huntington Woods, who along with Rep. Gary Howell, R-North Branch, is proposing the bill that would potentially allow a variety of local regulations on plastic bags.

The 2016 ban on bag bans was brought on by a Washtenaw County announcement that they planned to charge 10 cents each on both paper and plastic bags. That tax did not go through for a variety of reasons.

Allowing regulations to vary by municipality would make it difficult for larger corporations to comply and for smaller businesses to afford, Republican state Sen. Jim Stamas said when the ban on bag bans passed in 2016.

Now, the business environment has made plastic bags even more necessary. “Plastic bags prevent leaks, spills and moisture damage while transporting certain food items during delivery, with more and more of the industry turning to DoorDash or Grubhub for food delivery,” said Connor Spalding, vice president of government affairs at the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association.

Legislators are looking to balance that with environmental concerns. According to the Rochester Institute for Technology, more than 22 million pounds of plastic end up in the Great Lakes every year, creating some of the highest concentrations of plastics in the world, especially small “microplastics.” That is driving local groups to push municipalities and counties to get behind allowing local bans and taxes.

But Spalding pointed out bags don’t have to be thrown away. “Meijer has a drop-off area where you can bring your plastic bags for recycling,” he said.

Bag bans and taxes disproportionately impact low-income shoppers, bill opponents argue. People will pay the tax rather than change their habits. Plus, there are questions about whether the alternatives are any better.

A piece at Michigan NPR explained: “Plastic haters, it’s time to brace yourselves. A bunch of studies find that paper bags are actually worse for the environment. They require cutting down and processing trees, which involves lots of water, toxic chemicals, fuel and heavy machinery.” The piece went on to explain how University of Sydney economist Rebecca Taylor found that while paper is biodegradable and avoids some of the problems of plastic, bag bans increase greenhouse gas emissions thanks to the increase in paper production and increase in plastic garbage bag use because people no longer use shopping bags for trash.

Even reusable shopping bags are far from perfect. Basic plastic grocery bags had the smallest per-use environmental impact in a British study that ranked cotton totes as the worst option for the environment thanks to the resources used to make and distribute them.

Howell said his bill is about keeping decisions local. “To me, this isn’t a partisan issue. I’m a strong advocate for local decision-making and local control, and the folks who are against this are the retailers,” Howell said.

Currently, only two cities in the Midwest – Evanston, Illinois, and the Cleveland suburb of Orange Village, Ohio – have plastic bag bans. Several others have voted for bans that have yet to go into effect or that would charge a tax for plastic bags.

Idaho, Arizona and Missouri have bans on bag bans similar to the one Michigan currently has.

Lawmakers and local communities need to be careful when they impose taxes and bans that some claim are “good for the environment.” The laws of unintended consequences may trash their intentions.

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