Evan Schwartz: Paper, plastic and taxes

Americans have always bristled at the introduction of new taxes. We are taught that the American Revolution started as a result of unfair taxes imposed by our colonial overlords across the Atlantic, and such taxes gave birth to the concept of “Taxation without Representation.” Most of us see that phrase every day – emblazoned on the license plate of cars driving around the District. But the turn of the decade has transformed the D.C. license plate into a cruel joke, an ironic reminder that the city has become a proving ground for a strange new tax on plastic bags.

Starting Jan. 1, all businesses within the District that serve food or liquor began charging 5 cents for plastic and paper bags. In theory, most people should have no problem dropping an extra nickel during a grocery shop or beer run. The proceeds will be split as follows: about one penny goes to the business, and the rest gets put toward efforts to clean up the Anacostia River, which, according to proponents of the law, is polluted by 20,000 tons of trash each year. Lawmakers believe the tax will not only provide money for cleaning the river, but will soon force shoppers to take their own bags shopping, thus reducing the amount of trash created in the first place.

Other cities have tried similar taxes. Plastic bags are banned in San Francisco, but a law that would impose a 20-cent tax on plastic bags was rejected in Seattle. According to the Washington Post, the D.C. Council estimates the law will generate nearly $4 million this year in revenue, which will go toward the river cleanup effort.

But the same Post article highlighted the overwhelmingly negative response of Washingtonians. Charging people extra for something they need may lead to less pollution, but it will certainly increase anger at the local government, as well as anger at local businesses. For instance, if I am purchasing 15 different items at CVS, is it really necessary to ask me if I want a plastic bag? No thanks, I think I’ll stuff them all into my pockets and save that 5 cents, thank you very much. When ordering take-out, some restaurants now ask if you would like a plastic bag. Oh no, I want to see how many different hot food containers the deliveryman can hold at once. Maybe if we’re lucky, he’ll get second-degree burns!

Maryland enacted a law a few years ago that functions in a similar way. To raise money to clean the Chesapeake Bay, lawmakers imposed a $2.50-per-month tax on all houses hooked up to a septic tank. Homeowners were faced with a difficult choice – pay more money, or watch your home sink into a cesspool of your own filth. My own home state of New York has attempted to pass several strange laws in recent years, including a so-called “obesity tax” on sugary sodas and a tax on iTunes digital music downloads.

Taxing Americans on things they cannot help but use may inspire colonial-era anger. In a time when Americans are reticent to spend their money, why would the local government enact something that could serve to stifle local commerce? And now that the tax has been implemented, what would prevent the government from raising it to the Seattle level of 20 cents, or higher? A nickel may be a trivial amount, but those pennies add up over the course of a year and could rise even higher in the future. Perhaps D.C. residents should just feel lucky they aren’t taxing our toilets – yet.

The writer, a junior majoring in journalism and mass communication, is a Hatchet columnist.

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