Durable Growth

Do shopping bag fees send the wrong message?

070524055 Lido Street Scene 1I first came across the concept of shopping bags fees during a 2007 trip to Venice.  After a couple of days of wondering where one bought groceries in Venice, I eagerly shopped when I spotted a grocery store in Lido, across the Venetian Lagoon from my Venice apartment.

As the checker tallied my purchases, which were something like two boxes of crackers, two bottles of water, and laundry detergent, she asked if I wanted shopping bags.  The question puzzled me.  How did she think I could otherwise get home with my unwieldy purchases, especially with the vaporetto ride back across the lagoon?  I ascribed the question to her limited English and my complete absence of Italian.  I conveyed that shopping bags would be appreciated and used two fingers to confirm her guess of how many I’d need.

It was only when I was back in my apartment that I found I’d been charged 10 cents for each bag.  I wasn’t offended by the charges, assuming it was a local practice, one that seemed reasonable to me.  As I recall, I paid for bags during the remainder of my stay in Venice, never figuring out that I should be taking along a bag from earlier purchases when going out to shopping.

Having been introduced to shopping bag fees, I was a supporter when the idea followed me home to the U.S.  Clearly, there were resources that went into creating the bags, resources that could be saved if a shopper were to bring along a reusable bag.  Today, my wife and I have perhaps eight shopping bags stashed in the rear of our car, bags to cover every eventuality.  I’m fine with this new shopping bag reality.

But there was a moment during the weeks before Christmas, as I looked at a tower of cardboard boxes accumulated from online gift shopping, when I began thinking there might be a flaw in the concept of shopping bag fees.

Simply put, is it reasonable to charge a fee for a plastic bag at a local store, but not to charge for the cardboard needed to deliver packages from websites?  Doesn’t that policy act as a disincentive, admittedly a small one but still a discentive, to shop at local stores, the only kind of stores that will ever be walkable?

To put numbers to my concern, I made assumptions and did calculations for a frequent purchase made by my wife and me.

We have a canine household, with the dog population moving between two and four.  A staple at mealtimes is canned pumpkin.

(Not that I would recommend checking with an urbanist blog for advice on pet feeding, but for those readers intrigued by canned pumpkin as dog food, I’ll note that many dog authorities recommend pumpkin over canned dog food, specifically noting the nutrition and the benefits to canine coats.  And please note that it’s canned pumpkin that’s recommended, not canned pumpkin pie filling which contains spices not recommended for dogs.)

For years, my wife and I monitored sales on canned pumpkin in local stores, stocking up heavily when prices were good.  But as internet shopping matured, we found that we could buy a better grade of pumpkin online, at a comparable or even lower price.  So we switched over.  For the pricing practices of the site we use, the sweet spot for quantity is twenty cans, so a UPS driver staggers to our porch every few months with an unwieldy box containing twenty cans of pumpkin.

That twenty-can pumpkin order will be my point of packaging comparison.

For the local store purchase, assuming that I consistently forget to bring reusable bags, ten plastic bags would be required.  (I once had a mishap trying to put three pumpkin cans in a plastic bag, so two will be my limit.)  Although internet estimates vary, a weight per bag of 6 grams seems the mean value, which gives us 75 bags per pound.

So the ten plastic bags needed for twenty cans of pumpkin would weigh 0.08 pounds and have a bag fee, at 10 cents per bag, of $1.00.

For the internet alternative, the cardboard packaging, including double boxing and additional spacers to keep the cans from shifting, is about 30 square feet in area.  Using a typical cardboard thickness of 3/16 of an inch, an assumption that the cardboard can be crushed to half its thickness, and a weight of cardboard of 43 pounds per cubic foot, that would be 10 pounds of cardboard.

And the cost to me for that 10 pounds of cardboard?  Unless I assign a value to the time needed to break down the boxes and to squeeze them into the recycling can, it’s zero.

At this point, I know that attentive and critically-thinking readers will have objections to make.  I’ll try to anticipate and to respond to those concerns.

Perhaps the weight of cardboard is greater, but the environmental impacts of the plastic, from oil drilling to ocean accumulations of plastic waste, are much greater per pound.

Agreed, but cardboard isn’t without environmental impacts.  This recent New York Times article gives a good summary of the costs of the cardboard economy, from the delivery of boxes to individual homes to the water used in recycling.  As the weight of cardboard to deliver 20 cans of pumpkin is approximately 125 times the weight of plastic for the same delivery, it seems likely that the environmental impacts of the cardboard are greater.

The cardboard isn’t free.  Its costs are folded into the business model of the internet company.

I agree that nothing is free.  But that’s the same argument that was used by the anti-bag fee folks.  But the reality was that the only way to get people to commit en masse to reusable bags was to make the fee separate and optional.  The bag fees created a tipping point for bagging of local purchases.  No similar tipping point has been created for shipping of online purchases.

A fundamental difference between local stores and internet businesses is that one we can’t bring reusable boxes to an internet shipping site.

That’s true, but there are changes we could make to better reflect the true cost of internet shipping and to allow people to reduce their costs by wise shopping decisions.

Internet sellers could be required to charge based on the bulk of item being shipped rather than solely the value, including supplemental charges if the order must be filled from multiple warehouses in multiple packages.

Shipping could include a surcharge to reimburse cities for the additional wear on streets from the growing fleet of delivery trucks.

An option could be implemented by which items are bulk-shipped in large, reusable boxes to service centers where they’re unloaded and stored until consumers can drop by to collect them.  Or perhaps a courier could deliver the unboxed items.  Your new book, your neighbor’s new shirt, and your friend’s new toaster could travel from the warehouse in a single large box, without few if any supplemental shipping materials.

And there are probably other, even better, ideas which smarter minds could devise.

None of this is meant to argue against bag fees.  I thought they were a good idea in Venice in 2007 and I think they’re a good idea today.  But if we don’t want bag fees to serve as yet another impediment to local, potentially walkable, businesses, we should make a similar effort to ensure that the true costs of internet shipping are being imposed.

I’ve previously written of my support for a vehicle mileage tax (VMT).  I’d prefer that a VMT be implemented in parallel to the gas tax because the two taxes address different aspects of driving, but would be reluctantly amenable to having a VMT in place of a gas tax.  As a result, I’m pleased that the State of California is implementing a pilot program to test a VMT.  I’ll write more in my next post.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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