Senator Paul Pinsky and Delegate Barbara Frush have proposed legislation that would allow the county to impose a bag tax. The idea behind PG 402-12 is that users of bags of a certain type should pay for the cleanup costs rather than have the costs borne by everyone including those who do not use such bags. Trash (litter) thrown onto the side of the road, out of windows, and onto public sidewalks is a form of personal externalization of costs analogous to businesses that externalize their pollutants on to neighborhoods because they can and because they make larger profits. I for one fill a small container once a day with cans, bottles and bags thrown onto my property from passing cars. I pay (spend time) to clean up so someone else can save time for their own use. I bear the cost of someone else's convenience.
This legislation however is about more than my property or my problem of keeping my property clean because of the actions of others. It is about the environment and the ecological system services and resources that are compromised by massive externalization of trash by some users of these bags. The Anacostia River is so severely impacted by trash that in 2007 it was declared impaired by trash under the provisions of the Clean Water Act, according to the Anacostia Watershed Society. Plastic is a major pollutant of the ecosystems of Prince George's County. Information provided by the Alice Ferguson Foundation states that "[p]lastic is widely used due to its light weight, strength, durability, versatility, and low cost. Plastics can take hundreds of years to break down, so they may continue to entangle and kill animals year after year. One study found that almost 90 percent of the debris floating on our oceans is plastic."
Because the impact of the trash is not immediate and direct, but the cost of paying the tax is, we find a policy cognitive dissonance. Why should users have to pay more for needed goods now to prevent some nebulous (hard to see) benefit later? In other words, what are ecosystem services and why should I care enough to pay more to maintain them? And more to the point which ecosystem services are impacted by my decision to use plastic bags without thought to what happens to the big when I am finished with it (in the case of folks driving past my house I estimate the use time to be less than two minutes from the convenience stores and fast food down the road)
Like all designated taxes, how much of what is collected would actually be used to mitigate the plastic pollution and how much would go to cover existing and future debt remains to be seen. Will the county use the tax monies to issue cleanup grants to non-profits or to award cleanup contracts to businesses? Or will they collect the funds and do nothing much if anything at all? Some are claiming that it is too difficult to designate the monies for a specific purpose. Council person Lehman is quoted as saying that "A bag tax in Prince George's likely would go into the county's general fund."
There seem to be about ten reasons to be against this tax summed up in by Jenny Rogers in a blog last year. 1. Taxes aren’t the right approach because they hurt consumer's buying power and therefore are anti prosperity. 2. Recycling bags is an important industry and the tax will hurt it. 3. People reuse plastic bags, and a tax will reduce the re-use. 4. If you tax plastic, you’ll encourage paper. (but paper is covered by this legislation) 5. Statistics about how wonderful bag taxes work are inaccurate and misleading. 6. Taxes penalize people unfairly. (But of course so does pollution) 7. Green Seattle did not like the its bag tax and we should base our opinions on someplace else. 8. Customers take anger out on retailers, not legislators. 9. Retailers hate it. 10. the American Chemistry Council working with legislators will be involved ( I have no idea what this means, of course they will be involved and rightly so)
A refresher to ecological system resources and services follows. How of these services, if any, are impacted by plastic and paper bags thrown into our communities? And who should pay to pick them up?
1 Gas regulation Regulation of atmospheric chemical composition. CO2/O2 balance,O3 for UVB protection, and SOx levels.
2 Climate regulation Regulation of global temperature, precipitation, and other biologically mediated climatic processes at global or local levels. Greenhouse gas regulation, DMS production affecting cloud formation.
3 Disturbance regulation Capacitance, damping and integrity of ecosystem response to environmental fluctuations. Storm protection, flood control, drought recovery and other aspects of habitat response to environmental variability mainly controlled by vegetation structure.
4 Water regulation Regulation of hydrological flows. Provisioning of water for agricultural (such as irrigation) or industrial (such as milling) processes or transportation.
5 Water supply Storage and retention of water. Provisioning of water by watersheds, reservoirs and aquifers.
6 Erosion control and sediment retention Retention of soil within an ecosystem. Prevention of loss of soil by wind, runoff, or other removal processes, storage of stilt in lakes and wetlands.
7 Soil formation Soil formation processes. Weathering of rock and the accumulation of organic material.
8 Nutrient cycling Storage, internal cycling, processing and acquisition of nutrients.
Nitrogen fixation, N, P and other elemental or nutrient cycles.
9 Waste treatment Recovery of mobile nutrients and removal or breakdown of excess or xenic nutrients and compounds. Waste treatment, pollution control, detoxification.
10 Pollination Movement of floral gametes. Provisioning of pollinators for the reproduction of plant populations.
11 Biological control Trophic-dynamic regulations of populations. Keystone predator control of prey species, reduction of herbivory by top predators.
12 Refugia Habitat for resident and transient populations. Nurseries, habitat for migratory species, regional habitats for locally harvested species, or overwintering grounds.
13 Food production That portion of gross primary production extractable as food. Production of fish, game, crops, nuts, fruits by hunting, gathering, subsistence farming or fishing.
14 Raw materials That portion of gross primary production extractable as raw materials. The production of lumber, fuel or fodder.
15 Genetic resources Sources of unique biological materials and products. Medicine, products for materials science, genes for resistance to plant pathogens and crop pests, ornamental species (pets and horticultural varieties of plants).
16 Recreation Providing opportunities for recreational activities. Eco-tourism, sport fishing, and other outdoor recreational activities.
17 Cultural Providing opportunities for non-commercial uses. Aesthetic, artistic, educational, spiritual, and/or scientific values of ecosystems.
 PG 402-12 Prince George's County - Authority to Impose Fees for Use of Disposable Bags [accessed January 2, 2012] http://www.princegeorgeshousedelegation.com/legislation/bill-history?local=PG%20402-12
Synopsis: For the purpose of authorizing Prince George's County to impose, by law, a fee on certain retail establishments for use of disposable bags under certain circumstances; defining certain terms; and generally relating to the authority for Prince George's County to impose a fee for use of disposable bags.
 The Definition of External Costs. [accessed January 2, 2012] http://www.externe.info/definition.html
"An external cost, also known as an externality, arises when the social or economic activities of one group of persons have an impact on another group and when that impact is not fully accounted, or compensated for, by the first group."
 Support A Prince George's County Bag Bill. Anacostia Watershed Society. November 29, 2011. [accessed January 2, 2012] http://www.anacostiaws.org/news/blog/support-prince-georges-county-bag-bill
 How Can We Help Protect Our Water Resources? Litter and Debris in Our Waterways. [accessed January 2, 2012] http://www.longwood.edu/cleanva/images/Sec3.litterinwaterways.pdf
 Ben Giles. Prince George's County Council begins campaign for bag tax. WashingtonExaminoer.com November 24, 2011 [accessed January 2, 2012] http://washingtonexaminer.com/local/maryland/2011/11/pg-county-council-begins-campaign-bag-tax
"It makes budgeting too difficult," she [Lehman] said. "It's good in theory, but in these tough budget times, I'm just saying it's difficult politically and physically to designate funds."
 Jenny Rogers. 10 arguments from bag tax opponents. January 6, 2011. TBD.com. [accessed January 2, 2012] http://www.tbd.com/articles/2011/01/10-arguments-from-bag-tax-opponents-43278.html
 Robert Costanza, Ralph D'arge, Rudolf De Groot, Stephen Farber, Monica Grasso, Bruce Hannon, Karin Limburg£, Shahid Naeem, Robert V. O'neill, Jose Paruelo, Robert G. Raskin, Paul Sutton & Marjan Van Den Belt. The value of the world's ecosystem services and natural capital. Nature 387, 253 - 260 (15 May 1997) [accessed January 2, 2012] http://www.uvm.edu/giee/publications/Nature_Paper.pdf