Paper or plastic? VT lawmaker wants to tax them all


IN THE BAG: Paper or plastic, it doesn’t matter. A Vermont lawmaker wants to implement a 10-cent tax on disposable bags.

By Jon Street | Vermont Watchdog

BURLINGTON, Vt. — Paper or plastic, it doesn’t matter. A Vermont lawmaker wants to implement a 10-cent tax on disposable bags.

Critics, meanwhile, just want to bag that plan.

Sen. Bob Hartwell, D-Bennington, isn’t providing much evidence as to why the tax is needed. State and federal government data don’t provide much of a strong case either.

Businesses required to enforce the tax would be allowed to keep a penny, but the rest would go to the Vermont Department of Taxes. While Hartwell’s idea would only take aim at certain types of stores, its effects would reach every corner of the state.

“The ones we’re after are distributed mainly by big operations: supermarkets, big box stores and so forth. We intend to let those smaller firms out of this program because it really shouldn’t apply to them. They use bags, but they’re specialty items. They’re very attractive. They’re often reused,” Hartwell said.

Instead, it’s the “cartload” of plastic bags that come out of the supermarket and end up in a landfill, he’s mainly targeting.

Vermont Watchdog asked Hartwell whether paper and plastic bags are more harmful to the environment than other products that are not currently taxed, to which Hartwell responded, “I don’t know…except that (plastic bags) take forever to degrade.

HARTWELL: Plastic bags are harmful to the environment. That doesn’t really explain why he’s proposing taxing paper bags too.

“… [B]ecause you can’t put them through material resource recovery facilities…They don’t take plastic bags and to take plastic bags would require a very significant capital investment. So we want to get the bags, particularly plastic bags, out of circulation.”

Hartwell admitted “any kind” of plastic containers have “just as much staying power” as plastic bags. When asked if establishing a fee on those plastic products would be helpful, Hartwell paused and responded, “It’s possible.”

According to the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation’s 2012 report on waste composition, the most recent year for which data are available, plastic retail bags accounted for 0.57 percent of municipal solid waste. Plastic retail bags were among just one of the 28 categories of plastics in the solid waste stream. “Total plastic,” according to the VDEC report, accounted for 10.84 percent of solid waste in 2012.

At the national level, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conducted a similar study and found that in 2011 plastic bags made up 0.4 percent of the municipal solid waste stream, while “total plastics” accounted for 8.3 percent.

Opponents argue Hartwell’s bill could have unintended consequences.

Mark Daniels, chairman of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, an advocacy group for American-made plastic products. called the bill a “progressive money grab.” He warned that the legislation could drive business out of Vermont’s border towns into New York, New Hampshire or Massachusetts.

“If it’s not a tremendous drive, people are going to do that because people don’t like the fact that the government has chosen to legislate on something as crazy as how you…convey your retail products,” Daniels said.

South Burlington resident Bob Benny noted that much of the merchandise in stores is wrapped in plastic and that many people return their bags to grocery stores. Still others, he said, use them for various things like picking up after their dogs or cleaning up the trash in their cars.

“It’s just an extra charge that they don’t need. A lot of people are already using reusable canvas bags anyway,” Benny said.

This would be the first statewide tax enforced on disposable bags. Similar laws have gone into effect in places like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and Montgomery County, Md. Cities such as Austin, Texas, and Westport, Conn., have outright bans on plastic bags.

Contact Jon Street at and find him on Twitter @JonStreet.

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