Plastax Redux

It was pouring rain, and Maggie and I had just settled into bed. As we lay in the darkness listening to the pounding outside, wondering how our new little bean plants, who to this point had only been lovingly hand watered, would take to the thrashing, she rolled over and kissed me and said in her most romantic voice, “Did you remember to take out the garbage?”

Well no, actually, I hadn’t, but thanks for reminding me. So I lay there in the darkness trying to decide if I should leave my warm bed, get dressed, and brave the downpour and the raccoons, or stay warm and dry, and force myself awake early enough to be able to get my garbage bin to the curb before the garbage truck roared and clanked onto the block, woke me up, letting me know that I had missed it. Again.

Tough choice. As I lay there pondering the pros and cons, I let my mind wander to garbage in general, and to Janice Harris, a District of North Vancouver councilor who is advocating a national  25 cent tax on plastic grocery bags.

Her idea is modeled on the Irish Plastax. Introduced in 2002, the tax placed a 15 cent tax on every one of the 1.2 billion plastic grocery bags used by the Irish consumer, and was intended to curb their use. The program was a resounding success, and Irish consumers, like others all the world over, responded quickly to limit their payment of yet another tax. In the first year that the program was implemented the number of grocery bags being used by the Irish fell from 1.2 billion to just 200 million. People were not buying fewer groceries, of course, they had just switched back to reusable bags to lug their purchases home.

Harris suggests that 100% of the tax collected would be used to further recycling initiatives. Currently Canadians take home 50 million plastic grocery bags a day! That works out to an astonishing 18 billion per year. If we are as frugal as the Irish, then our consumption of grocery bags would drop to just 1.8 billion. Sounds like a great idea?

Well, perhaps not. And the more I researched, the more confusing the whole thing became.

The goal of the Plastax is to get people to stop using plastic bags in favour of using re-usable cloth or mesh bags. The result? The Irish did indeed start using re-usable bags to tote their groceries home. They carried their tomatoes, their potatoes, their Guinness, and…  purpose-made garbage bin liners. The sale of bin liners QUADRUPLED! It turns out the Irish were already recycling their grocery bags as garbage bags. The net use of plastic bags stayed identical. The Irish government, in a carefully spin doctored notice declared that the program was still a success because, they reasoned, that the grocery bags had been made in Asia whereas the bin liners had been made in Europe, thus saving the oil used to ship them half way around the world.

It sounds as if the Irish, like the apprentice archer, named the target after the arrow left the bow.

So what is the real issue? Is the issue about grocery bags? Is it bigger, is it about plastic? Is it bigger still, is it total garbage? Is it bigger yet, about a solipsistic, narcissistic consumer culture that views the now as more important than the yet to come? This issue highlights the difficulty with all environmental discussions. Without a clear goal stated, and an understanding of the interconnectedness of multiple systems, best summed up with triple bottom line accounting, the best intentions are just paving blocks on the viaduct to the underworld

When I spoke to Janice, she said that her inspiration for her Canadian Plastax was a story she had read about a dead Minke whale that had washed up on the Normandy coast with 800 kg of plastic bags in its stomach. Plastic in the ocean is a huge toxic problem and she felt a responsibility to do something about the problem. I laud her for that.

Except, of course, as far as I know, Canada, unlike many countries, including the US, doesn’t dump garbage in the ocean. We do have garbage problems, or challenges, if you prefer the spin-speak of our politicians, but at least in the GVRD all of our solid waste is transported to managed landfills, not dumped in the Pacific Ocean.

If we instituted the Plastax it would have the same effect as it had in Ireland, and the total amount of plastic used and discarded would remain exactly the same. At the same time, no less plastic would find its way into the ocean, and no more plastic would find its way into the landfill.  Tricky business this doing the right thing.

So let me take a stab at it. In Delta we pay $66 per year per household for garbage removal. A relatively small price to pay for the convenience of having someone take away our trash. Most people pay the garbage and recycling fee along with their taxes and utilities, and for that reason, it is rationalized as free, and because there is no arguing with City Hall, we just all accept it as the fees we pay to live in a tidy society.

The inherent unfairness in the system is the reason that we generate so much garbage.  People that put out 10 kilograms of garbage pay the same as someone that puts out 40 kilograms of garbage. Since there is no incremental value placed on the garbage, there is no incentive to take personal action to reduce the amount of garbage that is disposed of. This could be fixed if the city instituted a 3 tier fee system. In this simple system, now known universally as the Laird 3 Tier Color Coded Refuse Fee Structure, L3TCCRF, (who says acronyms have to be catchy?), each house would be given a special garbage can in one of 3 color coded sizes depending on their predicted load. Some families would have no interest in reducing and recycling and would pay a $100 for a large red garbage can. Some families would strive to fill the smallest can, a green one, and pay only $25. Most people would pay $50 for a yellow can. Extra bag tags could be purchased for $2 each at Safeway and Save-On, for those weeks when there was just too much trash. The revenue received from this system would more closely match the amount of garbage generated by each homeowner, and the responsibility for reducing the amount of garbage would be in the hands of the waste generating households. Not only would there be a financial incentive to reduce the amount of garbage generated, there would also be moral suasion, as the color coding would make it obvious who was trying to reduce their environmental impact and who wasn’t.

I believe that this scheme, when combined with education about composting and recycling, would reduce the total garbage heading to the dump by 40%. Now, if I could just figure out what to do with the 48,000 garbage cans that I just made obsolete by the L3TCCRF system. Like I said, tricky business this doing the right thing.