The Political Promise of Carbon Taxes
The idea behind the tax is to make it more expensive for the food and personal care industries to keep churning out single-use plastics. If it passes, the resulting revenue, which the state estimates would be on the order of a few billion dollars each year, would be used to shore up litter mitigation efforts and provide subsidies to the recycling industry, which struggles to compete with virgin plastic that’s cheaper than ever to produce, given the low price of oil . Half of the revenue would go toward recycling and composting infrastructure; subsidies would flow to the various players in the recycling pipeline, like curbside pickup programs and the “reclaimers” who process plastic into a reusable form.In theory, the tax will make recycled materials more competitive with virgin plastic. “It can't, on its own, make economic sense for a product manufacturer to use recycled, post-consumer plastic versus virgin plastic,” says Eric Potashner, vice president and senior director of strategic affairs for Recology. “The numbers don't add up, which is why we're trying to create this subsidy, to try to balance that equation.”
“It's putting that sense of responsibility on the plastics industry to start addressing the environmental impacts that they're having,” says Alexis Jackson, fisheries project director at the Nature Conservancy. “So we see that as valuable. But I think the second part really is about setting a target for reduction.” The initiative also calls for all single-use plastic packaging and food-ware to be either recyclable, refillable, reusable, or compostable by 2030. Manufacturers would have to reduce the overall amount of this plastic sold in the state by 25 percent by the same year.
The concept of a plastic tax is quite similar to a carbon tax. With the latter, you put a price on carbon, which is intended to hit emissions-spewing utilities particularly hard. Ideally, this has a dual benefit. First, it incentivizes polluters to produce less carbon by switching to renewable sources of energy. (Since British Columbia implemented a carbon tax in 2008, regional emissions have fallen by up to 15 percent.) Second, the tax revenue funds green energy projects or gets kicked back to local residents as a dividend.California already has a long history of so-called sin taxes designed to reduce environmental and health risks. Some of the revenue from its tobacco tax, for instance, funds early childhood development programs. And a plastic tax is a sort of sin tax, only on a global scale. “In general, a great way to raise revenue is through sin taxes,” says MIT economist Christopher Knittel, who studies carbon taxes.