How Much Should A Carryout Bag Cost?

What should the minimum charge for a paper (or reusable) carryout bag be?  That's a popular question among cities developing plastic bag reduction ordinances.

Per-bag charges have proven to be the best way to reduce single-use carryout bag consumption.  Charges either apply to all carryout bags or, under "second generation plastic bag bans," to paper bags (and sometimes to reusable bags as well).*  The thinking behind this is that plastic bag ordinances are generally focused on reducing carryout bag consumption overall and banning one product often means that people will just grab the next available free option.  These small charges on paper carryout bags have led to tremendous results.

Ten cents per bag is the most prolific charge amount in California, but several (about a fifth) of these cities opted to add a step up to 25 cents per bag after a year.  The first of of those cities was the City of San Jose in the San Francisco Bay Area.  City of San Jose's jump from 10 cents to 25 cents was set to take effect on January 1, 2014, but the City Council amended the ordinance in October 2013 to keep the charge at 10 cents.  The official press release from the City of San Jose notes:

The ordinance and the bag fee have been effective in reducing plastic bag litter by 89 percent in storm drain systems, 60 percent in creeks and rivers, and 59 percent in San José streets and neighborhoods according to a 2012 survey, compared to data collected prior to the ordinance.

San José sets a minimum bag charge, but a retailer may choose to charge more. Retailers retain all proceeds from the sale of the paper bags. As for all cities in the Bay Area, the current San Francisco Bay Municipal Regional Stormwater Permit requires the City of San José to reduce trash from the storm drain system and entering local creeks by 40 percent in 2014, 70 percent by 2017, and 100 percent by 2022.

This is encouraging news in that it shows 10 cents is enough to make a huge difference in consumer behavior.  In fact, Washington DC's 5 cent charge on all single-use carryout bags led to an immediate 60% reduction, which was a much bigger change than was expected at the time for such a small charge.  Prior to that, the common thinking was that larger charges like Ireland's 22 euro cent levy that led to an over 90% reduction in plastic bag consumption (as well as plastic bag litter), were needed to show any notable change.

Several other cities in the San Francisco Bay Area adopted ordinances with bag charges that increase from 10 to 25 cents on January 1, 2015.  For example Alameda County's ordinance includes this clause:

On or after January 1, 2015, a Store may make available for sale to a Customer a Recycled Paper Bag or a Reusable Bag for a minimum price of twenty-five cents ($0.25). This restriction, however, shall not apply if the Authority finds, after January 1, 2014, that the Ordinance has achieved its goal to substantially reduce the environmental impacts of the use of Single Use Carryout Bags, in which case the minimum ten cents ($0.10) per bag price provided in Section 4(b) shall apply.

Several Santa Clara County and San Mateo County cities include an increase to 25 cents in 2015 but do not include the explicit option to rescind the increase upon certain findings (although that could certainly still happen).  For example the City of Cupertino's ordinance includes this clause:

B.     Effective October 1, 2013 a retail establishment may only make recycled paper bags available to customers if the retailer charges a minimum of ten cents.   Reusable bags may be given by retailer without charge.

C.     Effective January 1, 2015 a retail establishment may only make recycled paper bags  or reusable  bags  available  to  customers  if  the retailer  charges  a  minimum  of twenty‐five cents.

It is yet to be known whether any of these other cities will maintain the 25 cent step-up. Arguably a larger charge will lead to an even more significant reduction in carryout bag consumption – perhaps closer to Ireland's 90% reduction. As of now, 10 cents seems like a good option.  The New York City Council is currently considering a bill that would require a 10 cent charge on all carryout bags.

* For more insight into why reusable bags should be charged for as well, please see the previous blog post entitled The big question: What does “Reusable Bag” mean?