Would You Support a Grocery Bag Surcharge?

Posted on August 12, 2009 by Courtney

plastic bag

You don’t have to be an environmentalist to see how many plastic grocery bags are being used out there. In this age of growing environmental awareness, more and more people are turning to reusable bags or, if you’re like me, no bags at all. (When I’m paying for groceries, I tell the bagger to just put everything back into the cart just like it was, then I load everything into a box I keep in my trunk. When I get home, I just carry the box inside. This occasionally elicits some strange looks, but since I’m rarely concerned with impressing the grocery store cashier, I don’t care.) But plastic bags have become so commonplace that most people can’t imagine grocery shopping without them, and this is creating a lot of waste in our landfills.

In Seattle, voters are facing a choice on Aug. 18: Do they want to uphold a surcharge on plastic bags? Last year, the city council imposed a charge of 20 cents per bag, but since then the American Chemistry Council has launched a petition drive that is forcing the issue to a ballot.

In one corner are the environmentalists, who say the abundance of plastic bags in the trash has created a “great garbage patch,” a huge chunk of non-biodegradable plastic that is swirling around the Pacific ocean. They also claim that only 20 to 30 percent of Seattle shoppers use reusable bags — a much higher percentage than other cities — and even those who have bought reusable bags don’t necessarily use them all the time. Plenty of people keep bags in their cars but forget to bring them in the store with them, but faced with the possibility of paying extra for groceries, people would be much more likely to remember.

In the other corner is the plastics industry, who see this more as a 20-cent “tax” on plastic bags. The ACC has put up about $1.4 million to fight this surcharge, saying the financial burden would hit poor shoppers the hardest. There’s also the added concern of which government bureaucracy would oversee the surcharge and, if none are able, if a new agency would have to be created. Besides, says the plastics industry, these bags only make up less than 1 percent of the city’s garbage, so our efforts would be better used in other matters.

Let’s also remember that plastic bags are often reused to hold the garbage itself. When I do get bags at the grocery store, I reuse them in small trash cans around the house. If these were taken away, would people start buying other small plastic bags to line their trash cans? Is that really a better solution? 

What do you think? Do you use plastic bags? Would you support a surcharge on them, or is this a terrible idea? Do you think that a surcharge would lead to more people using reusable bags?


  1. I would definitely support a bag tax, but I always use my cloth grocery bags.

    My solution to the bathroom waste bin issue was to start lining the bottom of the can with the spent fabric softner sheets from the laundry. It keeps anything from sticking to the bottom so it’s easier to slide into the big kitchen bag on trash day.

    August 12th, 2009 at 8:59 am
    Comment by Julie
  2. Julie, that is a fantastic idea! I’d never thought of that.

    August 12th, 2009 at 12:15 pm
    Comment by Courtney
  3. I use the bags for small wastebaskets, kitty litter, picking up dog dooky. If I didn’t get these bags for free, I would still have to have liners in my bathroom wastebaskets,and I don’t use dryer sheets, I hang up my clothes, etc, so I would be buying something else. Of course I could wash the trash can after each emptying and pick up dog crap by hand, but I’m not going to. And what is the benefit of your wasted time and energy, loading groceries into the box? Why not use reusable bags? Or at least put the box in your shopping cart, for heaven’s sake. Not trying to be snippy, just curious about your practice.

    August 12th, 2009 at 1:47 pm
    Comment by Roger Nehring
  4. people always seem to leave out one consideration in these plastic bag discussions. the store has to buy plastic (or paper) bags. they pass the cost on to the consumer in the form of retail prices. we see plastic bags as “free”, but they really aren’t. the only difference here would be that we’d be paying for them voluntarily, instead of in the price of our groceries.

    there might be a slight difference in price (a few cents) because the store buys bags in bulk, and we’d be buying individually, but i see this as negligible (and largely avoidable if you use reusable bags). if stores aren’t having to buy so many disposable bags, maybe they’ll be able to reduce their prices.

    August 12th, 2009 at 2:45 pm
    Comment by maria
  5. I think we need to focus more on creating incentives for people to limit their waste instead of taxing people for little things. That kind of bag “tax” might create more animosity toward the green movement.

    One of the stores I go to gives a 25 cent discount if you bring your own bag. Maybe there could be some kind of reward program for shoppers (tied into a shoppers club card or something) where it tallies how many plastic bags you’ve avoided using and gives you a discount on your next purchase when you hit a certain mark.

    I think we have to be very careful to not make going green feel like a punishment.

    August 12th, 2009 at 3:15 pm
    Comment by Allie
  6. I would support a surcharge. People need to realize they don’t ALWAYS need a bag. It has been come so ingrained that I think it is the only way to change peoples ways. Although forcing someone to do something is not always a good idea….

    I use cloth bags for my groceries and my wastebaskets are lined with paper bags out of necessity, my cat loves to eat plastic bags and she has had blockage issues in the past. I hate to bring plastic bags into the house. I do still use plastic bags for bulk items and some veggies at the store and those get reused for cat litter. I think I could stop using plastic for the cat litter and just use paper bags but then I would have to get those from the store. If I didn’t live in an apartment I would just use a container for the dirty litter and dump it but if management ever saw me doing that here I would be in so much trouble.

    I also end up with the occasional plastic bag from the guys at the liquor store down the street, there are still a few circumstances I don’t have the nerve to pull out my foldable cloth bag and say no thanks. Plus it is usually my husband who does the buying and I don’t think I could get him to use the reusable bag for his beer, that wouldn’t be manly.

    August 12th, 2009 at 3:31 pm
    Comment by mudnessa
  7. Roger: I use the box because it’s easier. I’m only carrying one thing instead of a bunch of bags. I’ve not thought of putting the box in the shopping cart, but I suppose I could do that. The box takes no more time and energy than bags.

    Maria: Yes, that’s true. I guess that’s why they call it a “surcharge” instead of just a “charge.” You’re right; we’re already paying for them. You’d think grocery stores would be on board with the environmentalists, because then they’d have to buy less from the plastic bag supplier.

    Allie: I like the idea of a rewards system much more than a penalty system. It is so important to keep people from resenting the green movement, because backlash is inevitable. It absolutely needs to stay a positive thing if it’s going to last.

    Mudnessa: It’s so hard to avoid plastic, isn’t it? It seems like if you give it up in one area, you have to compensate in another. A tip for your husband: Beer, when bought in a six-pack or a case, already has a handle. It doesn’t need a bag at all!

    August 12th, 2009 at 4:12 pm
    Comment by Courtney
  8. Ah but the stores need to put the alcohol in something. They can’t or won’t let you leave without it in a bag. I don’t know if it is an actual law or just something left over from prohibition or when people didn’t like to “advertise” their drinking or something. They often times don’t like it when I handle the booze either because they think I am underage even though I am 4 years older than my husband.

    August 12th, 2009 at 4:30 pm
    Comment by mudnessa
  9. At Trader Joe’s, you get to enter a contest if you bring your own bags. I won once – $25 off my next shopping trip! I sometimes forget to take my bags with me into the Kroger, but I ALWAYS remember to take them into Joe’s. (It might help that they have a huge sign out front that can be seen from space: Did You Remember Your Bags?)

    Basically that’s behavior modification. We get rewarded when we do something good. That’s a whole lot better than imposing a “tax.”

    August 12th, 2009 at 6:20 pm
    Comment by Lynn
  10. I live in the netherlands- here you have to buy a plastic bag if you want one, for €0.20. The bags are much sturdier than the ones you get in American stores. They also have sturdier bags for sale at the register for €5. You also bag your own groceries here. I always walk or bike to the store, so I always have a backpack, which usually has an extra bag in it. Occasionally I forget an extra bag, and have to buy a new one, but they are very sturdy and easy to re-use over and over. From the first time I encountered this over here I thought it was a fantastic idea.

    August 13th, 2009 at 2:31 am
    Comment by Rachel
  11. Ditto Rachel.

    It took me about a week to get used to “Oh, that’s right, I need a bag!” before I went out grocery shopping. We still have plastic bags a-plenty, though, because they are really handy for wrapping shoes/dirty laundry for traveling, scooping kitty poo, and containing biohazardous refrigerator-mutants…

    August 13th, 2009 at 4:58 am
    Comment by Jules
  12. Where do we even get the notion that we are entitled to free bags? If I really need trashcan liners, I’ll buy some. When are we just going to quit our reliance on all things plastic and disposable?

    August 13th, 2009 at 11:25 pm
    Comment by mickey
  13. I avoid plastic for the kitty litter by using newspaper. I lay out about three sheets, scooop the litter onto the sheets and just fold up the newspaper and place in the trash. It is really quite tidy. When I need to swap out the litter entirely, I just pour it into an empty kitty litter bag.
    As far as the punishment vs reward approach of changing peoples behaviour…I don’t think of charging people a fee for something they comsume is punishment.
    As others have mentioned, the bags aren’t free now. I remember when a few years ago, we in Washington voted on whether to ban smoking in all public buildings. There was great uproar that bars, restaraunts etc would lose business or go out of business. The ban passed and no one complains, it is what it is. The ban changed behavior in a way that most people agree is good. I think if the fee that is up for vote in Seattle passes, people may complain for awhile and then it will be what it is.

    August 14th, 2009 at 12:57 pm
    Comment by Maddie
  14. I think we should outlaw the plastic bags like other countries have done. An extra charge to too easy for people to overlook. Radical I know, but other countries are taking the lead on this and we should follow.

    August 19th, 2009 at 8:51 am
    Comment by Vanessa
  15. [...] on August 20, 2009 by A Free Man Courtney’s post on the proposed plastic bag surcharge in Seattle got me thinking about these ubiquiotous flimsy ‘flags of the consumer era’. Here in [...]

    August 20th, 2009 at 6:28 am
    Pingback by A plastic fantastic mess
  16. It failed, apparently. I’m disappointed.

    August 20th, 2009 at 6:39 am
    Comment by A Free Man
  17. I’m all for getting rid of plastic bags forever, but I am also stuck wondering how to pick up the dog dooky. I live in a city with city-provided garbage cans emptied once a week, and I have a pooper scooper (plastic) but the idea of just tossing the poop by itself into the can and letting it sit for up to a week, melting all over the bottom of the can, is gross (in the winter this isn’t really an issue). What do other people do as an alternative to plastic bag dog pickup in cities?

    August 21st, 2009 at 9:10 am
    Comment by Courtney
  18. I think the best way to solve the problems is both a rewards system & checker \ bagger education. I started canvas bagging in mid size Georgia town. I could definately tell that more than 1 bagger was less then happy with me & SURPRISED by their own store’s logo on at least one of the bags.

    A couple of comments \ questions.

    If you’re worried you’ll run out of plastic doggy bags, search the web for biodegradable doggy doo bags. (I’ve been using canvas bags for over 3 years & I’ve yet to run out of plastic bags – my hubby can’t seem to bring bags into the hardware store.) However, I’ve seen “greener” doggy doo bags.

    Bathroom trash bags – I’ve never used them & I don’t line the cans with anything. It’s very rare that I’ve had to “clean” a trash can after emptying it into the kitchen trash. (& No, I don’t flush “female” waste & do deal w/ pooppy diapers.)

    August 21st, 2009 at 10:44 am
    Comment by Amanda
  19. A bag surcharge can work both ways: good and bad. Right now the bags are “free” and relatively sturdy. Now imagine what a business will do if they want to pass on the charge to people who don’t want to pay “extra”? The bags will become extra thin and flimsy. Can you imagine all the fickle people complaining about the bags? Ick. On the flip side, it will make people think about whether or not they need the bags. When I’m buying a small handful of things then I just carry out it in my hands/arms. If I’m grocery shopping then I use bags but I stuff them full. Like others, I use them for trash can liners, lunch boxes, and even packing material. I only throw a bag away if it’s torn.

    What effect would a surcharge have on the poorest people living around or below the poverty line?

    We already pay a surcharge on the bags. The surcharge is embedded in the products we buy and shops count this as overhead.

    Personally, I like Costco’s approach. Reuse the original packaging boxes.

    August 21st, 2009 at 1:13 pm
    Comment by Boris
  20. screw the bag ban! i refuse to pay for bags at the stores! f those stupid green fake freaks!!!!!!!
    its all a total fraud to force us to pay the government for a fraudulent fake global warming mass hysteria!you are all idiots if you actually believe that crap.sad

    June 5th, 2010 at 4:51 am
    Comment by sewbiz
  21. [...] when we talked about the possibility of a plastic bag surcharge in grocery stores? A few cities have floated the possibility and a few have enacted a complete ban [...]

    September 22nd, 2010 at 4:02 am
    Pingback by Plastic Bag Surcharge: Does It Work?
  22. Maddie and Vanessa, good ideas. We should start banning them but I think the first thing is the surcharge. Set a date in the future when the ban will take effect. People will get used to it just like they got used to plastic bags. There have been so many inventions/products for our “ease & comfort” that we are now finding out are bad for us and the environment. We need to move forward in any positive way we can.
    As for the dog poo, we use newspapers just like bags. Crumple a couple layers up so it is softer and bendable, then just pick up.
    As to the poor people subject, they are very adabtable by necessity. They WILL bring their own bags/boxes.

    October 21st, 2010 at 12:54 am
    Comment by Deb
  23. I agree that tax would discourage people and give them more reason to go crazy about the greenies. A discount would be better. I always forget my bags at home after the last unload and I think a tax or discount would encourage me to remember. But again, tax is a bad idea.

    October 11th, 2011 at 9:26 am
    Comment by ashita
  24. i can understand the reason to cut back on reusable bags, cost, environment issues and so on, but everyone is careless when it comes to the environment, i do think there should be a way to help prevent the damage, but when stores charge you for a carrying (bag) case for you to carry there product you purchased from them, from there location to where ever is a sing to me that they dont appreciate your buisness, espesialy if they have there advertisement on the bag, if they want me to advertise there store, they can pay me or give me a free bag, id gladly pay for a bag with no adds on it

    January 22nd, 2012 at 2:41 pm
    Comment by Dave

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