Bad Container Policies Across the Country Make Takeout, Shopping More Expensive

If you’re like most Americans, after a long day at work the easiest option for dinner often ends up being takeout or delivery. It seems every day there is a new technology or company promising to make meals easier, whether it be drone pizza delivery, one of the countless meal-kit delivery services, or a new app to order takeout.

Behind all these technologies improving how we eat, there’s a more basic one that makes all this possible, the container.

Whether it be a plastic bag, Styrofoam container, or a cardboard pizza box, all of these items make meal delivery and carrying groceries much easier. Having a simple, inexpensive, lightweight container to carry meals in is what makes takeout possible; not to mention, transporting groceries or any of the other items people buy.

A number of policies regarding auxiliary containers have cropped up across the country that can make it more expensive and inconvenient to order takeout and carry home the things you buy. Lawmakers in Colorado this year proposed a 25 cent tax on plastic bags before the bill died in committee earlier this week. Other states and localities have simply banned plastic bags and other types of containers outright.

Taxes or fees on auxiliary containers, as well as outright bans, are regressive and impact lower-income households the most. Everyone who uses plastic bags pays the tax, so a low-income household would put a greater percentage of income toward the tax than a high-income household. Plastic bag bans function in a similar manner. A single-parent working two jobs likely has less time to keep track of and wash a reusable cloth bag every time they go to the grocery store compared to a wealthier two-parent household.

City-specific container policies also have numerous flaws. If a city bans a specific type of container, customers may simply shop elsewhere. This may decrease sales tax revenue for a city, although not likely enough to outweigh the revenue gains from the new tax.  A study of Washington DC’s 5-cent bag tax found that it contributed to “a loss of 100 jobs, $5.6 million in real disposable income and lower tax collections for other D.C. taxes” in part due to some consumers choosing to shop outside the district. City-specific policies also create a patchwork of different policies within a state making it harder for businesses trying to expand into multiple locations within a state.

The purpose behind these bans is often to improve environmental quality, but bans and taxes often have unintended consequences and whether overall environment quality is improved is difficult to discern.  The City of Austin implemented a bag ban in 2013 and found the following in a 2015 review of the policy:

“While most citizens find the bag ordinance to be beneficial to the environment, at least in terms of the reduction of litter, the results do not indicate a clear success. Indeed, the amount of single-use plastic bags has been reduced, both in count and by weight. However, in their place, the larger four mil bags have replaced them as the go-to standard when the reusable bag is left at home. This reusable plastic bag, along with the paper bag, has a very high carbon footprint compared to the single-use bag…”

And the review found the bag ban had a number of unintended consequences:

The Single Use Bag Ordinance has been successful in reducing the amount of single-use plastic bags in the City of Austin. There have been unintended consequences such as an increase on reusable plastic bags in the recycling stream, increased the cost to the consumer and unforeseen costs to certain retailers.”

There are always tradeoffs and unintended consequences with any type of ban or tax that often mitigate the underlying goal of said ban or tax. Given the tradeoffs and complexities already mentioned, state governments are often better suited to deal with regulating auxiliary containers as they have greater staff and resources to understate the impacts.

The type of container people use to buy food, clothes, or any other items is a decision that should be made by businesses and their consumers. If a business wants to offer a product that is more environmentally friendly, and possibly more expensive, and customers like it, it’s a win for everyone. Ultimately, with more innovation, products that are better for the environment and cheaper or equal in price will win out over existing products.

In consideration of all these different issues, ALEC members created model policy that standardizes auxiliary container policy across an entire state by prohibiting localities from banning or placing a tax or fee on them. This policy ultimately puts consumers in charge of whether they want paper or plastic.

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