Massachusetts Bag Provision a Solution in Search of a Problem

Jun 15, 2016
Spear_Gretchen-WebBy Gretchen Spear
Director, Packaging & Government Affairs

The Massachusetts State Senate has passed a budget bill that includes language requiring stores to charge at least 10 cents for paper bags.

“Why?” you may ask.  We are asking that very question. Paper bags are not the primary target of this legislation. In fact, most Massachusetts communities – including Framingham, Harwich and Nantucket – excluded mention of paper in their ordinances when they considered bans or taxes for their communities.

Paper bags are a recyclable and sustainable packaging option for consumers who need a carryout bag. Many retailers are choosing to offer paper as the default option in response to consumer demand from the environmentally-conscious. Not only are paper bags made from recycled paper, they are highly recycled themselves and are a fixture in community recycling programs throughout the state and the rest of the country.

Paper and paper packaging are highly recycled. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more paper (by weight) is recovered for recycling from municipal solid waste streams than glass, plastic, steel and aluminum combined. Still the paper and paper-based packaging industry actively works to increase paper recovery and is mid-way in its effort to achieve a voluntary fiber recovery goal to exceed 70 percent by 2020.  And we’re getting close. In 2015, 66.8 percent of all paper consumed in the U.S. was recovered for recycling, and the recovery rate has met or exceeded 63 percent for the past seven years.

Additionally, there is broad access to community recycling. In 2014, 96 percent of the U.S. population had access to paper and paperboard community recycling programs.

Imposing the proposed fee on paper bags serves no legitimate public purpose and, in fact, has several unintended consequences. 

A tax on paper bags, such as the one in the Senate budget bill, discourages consumers from using products that are recyclable, compostable, made of recycled material, and reusable. The end consequence is ultimately encouraging use of thicker plastic bags that are not widely accepted for recycling and are thus more likely to end up in a landfill. One would think this is exactly the result that Massachusetts would want to avoid.

Furthermore, taxes and fees burden hard working citizens, increasing the cost of basic necessities for all citizens and disproportionately impacting those who are low income. For low-income citizens who are dependent on public transit and cannot practically expect to bring reusable bags every time they go to a retailer, this will create an additional burden. These consumers cannot afford to pay an additional tax on bags while they struggle to cover the increasing cost of basic necessities, and need a free packaging option to protect their food purchases from damage and contamination.

Members of the Massachusetts State Budget Conference Committee should take a page from the aforementioned communities and others in the state and throw out the tax on paper bags by rejecting Section 34 of the Senate’s FY17 budget.