Commentary Magazine


Are Bag Laws About Money or Litter?

Several months ago, after Montgomery County, Maryland imposed a bag law taxing both paper and plastic bags, I questioned whether the new law would be a money loser for retail establishments. The tax gap between Maryland (where I live) and Virginia (where I shop) has never been so large. Since the bag law past, I have easily taken several hundred if not a couple thousand dollars worth of grocery and other purchases out of the county, not only to save money but also to gather the bags which I use for trash can liners, throwing away diapers, and cat litter disposal. If I can avoid an irritating shopping experience, driving an extra ten minutes (and saving $0.50/gallon on gasoline while I’m there) is well worth the price.

Proponents of the bag law and the overwhelmingly Democratic Montgomery County government say that the law is about reducing litter and promoting a cleaner environment. Few people believe police departments when they say that quotas and revenue do not play into speed limit enforcement, and the County’s bag explanations also strike a false note. Let’s put aside that there are litter laws already on the book, so the bag tax is effectively punishing the innocent rather than the guilty. In the last couple of days, I received a glossy flier in the mail promoting Montgomery County green initiatives. The flier didn’t look like it was made out of recycled paper and mailing it was a waste of money; I’d be willing to bet far more will end up in the trash than anywhere else.

Perhaps before election season, it would also make sense for the Montgomery County politicians who say that the bag fees are about putting the environment first to forego the ugly and wasteful political fliers and posters with which they litter our roads, mailboxes, and byways. They should not legislate against them—free speech is paramount—but they might show they stand consistently for principle. That is, of course, unless money and personal ambition trumps principle.