If you weren’t aware, a group of passionate Minot citizens appealed to Minot’s City Council to take up the issue of single-use plastic — particularly disposable plastic bags. After months of information gathering and taking public comment, the group offered several recommendations intended to curb consumption.
One of the primary recommendations is a 10-cent tax on plastic bags. The theory with a tax is that it will reduce use and nudge better behavior through a small financial cost.
The Minot Daily News covered the Council’s discussion on the issue; check it out here. As far as my position, Jill Schramm captured it accurately. Here’s my quote from her coverage, “There’s an unacknowledged cost associated with single-use plastic, whether it’s plastic bags, whether it’s lids on coffee cups, whether it’s straws. There’s a social cost in terms of the aesthetic in our community and there’s an environmental cost.”
That sums up my position perfectly. While plastic bags are both affordable and convenient, there costs associated with that convenience we’re only just starting to understand. Such is the case with the adoption of most new technology — there are often unknown consequences that come along for the ride. And yes, I’m defining plastic bags as a ‘new technology’.
Though the issue of a plastic-bag tax wasn’t voted on, it would seem that attitudes on the Council mirror the range of perspectives in public. There was skepticism as to whether this is an issue that requires government intervention; that’s a fair position. In invoking the blunt tool that is government regulation or taxation, we should be absolutely certain that the problem we’re attempting to solve is, in fact, a real problem. Also represented on Council were others like myself who view plastic bags as an issue we should be discussing.
Now, being willing to discuss a perceived problem and being unified on a solution are places not near each other on the spectrum of political action. The distance from discussion to action is — and should be — a long push. But do we sometimes fail to take up an action because the final destination seems so distant and costly? If so, is it a failure to identify a small, incremental first-step that keeps from starting the journey?
In a philosophical conversation, I would answer ‘yes’ to both of my questions. Which leads me back to plastic bags and what — if anything — we should do about them. And if the answer is we should do something, what’s the small, incremental step?
I’m at yes — I think we should act. But I’m not convinced that a 10-cent tax is the appropriate first or properly-sized incremental step towards the solution.
What intrigues me more as a first, incremental step is acknowledging that bags — plastic or paper — are not free. Yes, most stores give us bags when we buy something, but is there anybody out there who really believes these are free?
So, instead of mandating a tax on bags, let’s ask retailers to start charging for them. That’s the solution I propose. And let’s let the retailers figure out the appropriate pricing. I don’t care if the price is 1-cent, 10-cents, or 25-cents — it’s up to them. But in Minot, let’s be honest with ourselves, let’s look at the cost of our bags on our receipts. It’s a small step, but it will force us to acknowledge that there’s no such thing as a free bag.
It also sends the message that Minot is a progressively-minded-but-not-at-the-expense-of-common-sense kind of place. And that sounds like winning to me.