Zero Waste Humboldt: Will Single Use Plastic Become the New Sin Tax?

By Maggie Gainer

‘Sin’ or public health taxes are excise taxes have been imposed on the consumption of products potentially harmful for health (sugar-sweetened beverages, tobacco, alcohol, among others). The taxes have long been used to reduce consumption, raise additional revenue, and/or improve public health. In September, the plastics industry lashed out at a Democratic proposal to help finance the $3.5 trillion federal spending bill by taxing single-use plastics.

The U.S. Senate Finance Committee has considered a tax on the sale of virgin plastic resin, the base materials used to make single-use plastics, as one potential way to pay for the huge spending bill, according to a document released in September. Sharon Udasin, sustainability writer for The Hill, reported that the idea for a plastics tax was first introduced by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) in August. His bill, the REDUCE Act, would impose a 20 cent per pound fee on the sale of new plastic for single-use producers with the goal of helping “recycled plastics compete with virgin plastics on more equal footing.” The “excise tax”, a duty imposed on a specific good, would apply to virgin resin. Manufacturers, producers and importers of the resin would pay 10 cents per pound in 2022, which would gradually rise to 20 cents per pound in 2024.

Of course, strong opposition to the proposal comes from the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council (ACC), a trade group representing 28 companies including oil giants such as ExxonMobil, Chevron and Shell as well as major chemical manufacturers such as DuPont and Dow Chemical.

In addition to the plastic resin tax, the Senate Finance Committee is also discussing taxes on stock buybacks and on corporations whose CEO pay exceeds the pay of their average workers, as well as energy-tax proposals.

Sen. Whitehouse explained, “On its own, the plastics industry has done far too little to address the damage its products cause, so this bill gives the market a stronger incentive toward less plastic waste and more recycled plastic.” 

The fees generated by this process would go toward a Plastic Waste Reduction Fund, which would serve to improve recycling activities. 

The ACC immediately opposed the REDUCE Act in August, arguing that policymakers should instead adopt comprehensive policies that could lead to a “circular economy” — an economy in which production and consumption focuses on extending the lifecycle of products and minimizing waste, as defined by the European Union.

To date, Joshua Baca, vice president of the ACC’s plastics division, said the plastics industry “has invested almost $7 billion in promoting advanced recycling technologies, which he called “a step in the right direction.” 

 For many years, Big Oil and the manufacturers of single-use plastic products and packaging have shirked their responsibility for plastic pollution by telling consumers to “learn how to recycle right.” Every few years, they make grandiose claims about improving recycling. They haven’t set goals for preventing plastic pollution in the first place with significant design changes in products and packaging. Huge sums have been invested in trying to recycle all the different forms of plastics. The concept of an excise tax is worth considering for waste prevention and reuse systems.

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