The Fort Collins City Council, apparently tired of living in Boulder’s shadow, wants to follow in Boulder’s footsteps and impose a fee on paper and plastic shopping bags. Doing so would mean treading over the rights of responsible individuals with no clear benefit.
Fort Collins’s website reports that the Council wants to restrict “use of single-use disposable shopping bags—i.e. only those provided at checkout.” How? The proposed “Merchant Regulation” ordinance would prohibit grocery stores from providing free disposable bags. Instead, they would be required “to apply a minimum cost of $0.05 or $0.10/bag for single-use plastic and paper bags,” and would get to keep the money.
Is it five cents or 10 cents? I asked Susie Gordon, a senior environmental planner for the city, for details. “It will depend on what the council wants to do” at its July 1 meeting, she said, adding that the same fee, whatever it is, would apply to paper and plastic bags. “Why is it five or 10 cents?” I asked. “That seems a little arbitrary. Why not 11 or six or four cents?” Gordon said a five- or 10-cent fee “is just sort of the convention,” helping consumers easily calculate total bag costs.
In other words, the bag fee has no relationship to any objective cost of producing bags or disposing of them.
The city of Fort Collins conveniently lists some arguments for and against the fee, but omits the most important consideration: A bag fee violates people’s rights. Grocers and other merchants have a moral right to operate their businesses as they see fit, and consumers have a moral right to seek out business relationships as they see fit.
If merchants want to give away bags, sell them, or not stock them at all, that is properly their business, and not the business of politicians and bureaucrats. If consumers want to shop at stores that offer bags—or at stores that don’t offer them—that is properly their business. Likewise, environmentalist activists have a moral right to seek to persuade merchants and consumers to limit bag use, but not to restrict bag use by force.
The city proposes to let merchants keep the fee presumably for two main reasons. First, if merchants can keep the money, and if none of their competitors may legally offer free bags, some merchants might support the fee. Second, by imposing a “fee” rather than a “tax,” the proposal circumvents the requirements of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, which requires all taxes to be put to a vote. Of course, this “fee” is merely a legal contrivance. Historically, a “fee” was supposed to be moneys paid for a specific government service. But government is not providing any “service” worthy of the name for this “fee.”
Merchants who support the measure on the grounds that they can keep the money strike a bargain with the devil. As the Coloradoan reports, the Council might require merchants to pay for “signage and other educational efforts” and to “provide free or reduced-price durable bags to customers.” In other words, the Council may force merchants to fund and distribute government propaganda and to run a welfare program. If Fort Collins leaders can demand such things, there is in principle no limit to what they can force merchants to do.
Almost all bags end up in the landfill, as is entirely appropriate. A 2012 report from the private Brendle consulting group (a report for which the city paid $4,995) indicates that the Larimer County Landfill spends perhaps a few thousand dollars per year cleaning up plastic bags distributed by merchants. What the report does not mention is that landfill costs are almost entirely covered by user fees (except for a bit of money from interest and sales of assets).
As for keeping the city clean, litter-bugs will not be deterred by a fee on bags. Obviously, local government should continue to take action against litterers. But most people who use plastic and paper bags do not just throw them to the winds; they dispose of them or recycle them properly. The majority of responsible bag users should not be punished because of the littering of a few.
Ah, but do people really “need” to use paper and plastic bags? As one college student told the Collegian, “There was a time when there were no plastic bags, and if you really think about, these single-use disposable bags are more of a convenience than a necessity.”
Of course, there was also a time when there were no dishwashers, plastic food bags and wraps (now ubiquitous), electric washing machines, synthetic clothing, air conditioners, or electric refrigerators (among thousands of other examples). Should we sacrifice all such “conveniences?” It is not the proper role of politicians and bureaucrats to decide what people “need.”
In fact, paper and plastic shopping bags significantly benefit many people’s lives; that’s why most people choose to use them. They offer a convenient way for shoppers to carry groceries and other goods from a store to their homes, and then they serve useful purposes for lining trash cans, picking up after dogs, and the like. (Such bags often are not “single use,” as the city claims.)
As the Fort Collins website points out, reusing bags to carry groceries can spread dangerous diseases—so the bags must be regularly washed (a process that wastes water and energy). The city also suggests that people frequently wash their trash cans rather than line them with plastic bags. If the city’s politicians and bureaucrats wish to frequently wash up after gross garbage, that’s their business, but they should not seek to force everyone else to do so.
Merchants have a moral right to offer free bags to customers if they want to do so, and customers have a moral right to use them if offered. Paper and plastic shopping bags benefit the lives of many people—as do innumerable other items that eventually end up in the trash. Fort Collins has no legitimate business forcing people to pay a fee to use them for the sake of some feel-good environmentalist crusade.