Starting in January, shoppers who buy groceries, hardware, even motorcycle gear in Woodstock will probably become more aware of their plastic-bag use. The city council has passed an ordinance that will impose a 10-cent tax on all bags given to shoppers at stores larger than 5,000 square feet.
The city will keep 7 cents of that fee, while 3 cents will go to the retailer giving out the bags. It would make more sense if stores were to set a price on bags themselves – if any – and government stayed out of it.
Local consumers will feel the pinch from this tax – unless they decide that it’s worth it to them to take their business elsewhere, either because of the added cost or simply on principle. If enough people decide to shop elsewhere, this could hurt Woodstock’s economy more than it will help to save the planet.
Shoppers have a right to resent added taxes. They already pay an 8 percent sales tax on most goods purchased in Woodstock, a rate slightly higher than other local communities. Add to that the way that each new legislative session in Illinois seems to bring proposals for new taxes, and it’s easy to see how consumers feel under siege. A lot of people have left Illinois in the past decade; others wish they could.
Some council members have pointed out that no one has to pay the new tax. People can bring their own reusable bags, or simply forgo using bags. Studies conducted after Chicago implemented a 7-cent plastic bag fee in 2017 show that many people have done that, and the use of the bags has declined. In places where plastic bags are free, they’re probably overused – we tend not to place much value on something when there’s no cost associated.
But it’s not as though the alternatives to plastic bags are much better. The process of manufacturing paper bags, for example, has been shown to actually be more detrimental to the environment. A 2006 study by the British government found that cloth bags have to be used more than 100 times to have less of an environmental impact than a plastic bag used once and thrown in the trash, and more than 300 times to have less impact than a plastic one that is reused at least once. People often do re-use plastic bags for things like wastebasket liners or cleaning up after pets.
If retailers chose to do so, they could impose their own fees on plastic bags. This is what grocer Aldi does – and people continue to shop there because they expect this and other fee-based systems that help the chain keep costs down.
When government mandates the tax and collects most of the revenue, though, it seems more like a cash grab.
If other communities’ efforts to attach a cost to plastic bags are any indication, the fee will change consumer behavior. Whether that change results in people using fewer plastic bags or simply choosing to buy goods in another community remains to be seen.