Tuan Pham’s family founded its grocery store in Illinois 23 years ago. The Hoang-Anh Oriental Food Store in East Moline proudly serves Quad Cities shoppers, especially the Asian-American immigrant community.
But Pham is no fan of what he’s hearing out of Springfield.
“I know Chicago already has [a plastic bag tax],” Pham said. “I think this is a bad idea.”
Pham is onto something. While trumpeted as an environmental protection, the bag tax is another money grab. And despite good intentions, unintended consequences mean the tax could do more harm than good for the environment.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker included what would be the nation’s first statewide plastic bag tax in his February budget proposal. He estimated a 5-cent-per-bag tax would generate around $20 million. A bill charging a 7 cent-per-bag tax at checkout counters across Illinois has already passed out of a Senate committee and is the subject of further negotiation.
Most of Pham’s customers are on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, but 20 to 30 percent come over from Iowa, even though nearby Davenport has more Asian grocers than East Moline. That’s one reason the bag tax worries Pham.
“Why pay extra and go further?” he asked.
Also frustrating is the fact that while the bag tax was born in Chicago – the city has imposed a 7-cent-per-bag tax since February 2017 – Chicagoans would be exempt from the state-level tax under two bag tax bills proposed so far.
The problem with that exemption is the plastic bag tax would raise millions of dollars that would flow to the state’s general revenue fund, under the bill moving through the Senate. So Chicago would benefit, but not pay.
In contrast to Illinois, neighboring states such as Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana all have state laws on the books preventing local bag taxes. And according to data on bag use and production, those laws could actually be greener than what Pritzker is pushing.
How? Think about the life of a typical plastic bag you get from the grocery store. Oftentimes it gets a second or third hurrah as a garbage bag, and maybe accompanies your dog on a walk.
A UK Environment Agency study in 2011 examined the life cycle of all kinds of bags, from their production, to use, to disposal. And the findings were surprising.
In terms of total environmental impact, the study found paper bags are only better than plastic bags if used four or more times. That’s why last year, when British supermarket chain Morrisons switched from plastic bags to paper bags for fruit and vegetables, experts called it a step backwards for the environment. It’s tough to get four uses out of a paper bag.
And the numbers on cotton tote bags are even more extreme. Reusing a single plastic bag three times has the same environmental impact as using a cotton tote bag 393 times, according to the UK report. That’s one trip to the grocery story per week for seven and a half years.
But those pushing the bag tax in Illinois may not care much about the body of research on this topic. They’re looking out for a different kind of green. In a scramble for new revenue and an unwillingness to take on any reform on the spending side, the Statehouse has turned to creative ways to nickel-and-dime residents.
A new tax on e-cigarettes, fee hikes for driver’s licenses and vehicle registration, and even a “Netflix tax” that charges a 1 percent tax “for the privilege to witness view, or otherwise enjoy” streaming entertainment have popped up in Springfield in the last month.
More than 200 miles south of Pham, between Decatur and Effingham, Daric Peadro learned about the plastic bag tax proposal from a customer. He’s the co-owner of Windsor Food Center, which employs 35 people in Windsor, Illinois.
“I told him, it’s going to be like Smokey and the Bandit,” Peadro joked, “buying cases of bags in Indiana to give them to my customers. Eastbound and down.”
“‘Ridiculous’ is about the only word I can use to describe it.”
Austin Berg is a writer for the Illinois Policy Institute. He wrote this column for the Illinois News Network. Austin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.