Politico recently reported on a proposed law in Maine that would tax food wrappers. Before you react (either by yawning or rolling your eyes), consider the likely motive for imposing such a tax, and the potential implications.
Maine’s bill is an effort to recoup at least some of the costs governments incur when recycling tons of packaging waste. Managing America’s trash is expensive, its costs continue to escalate, and a significant percentage of those costs are paid with tax dollars.
According to the report, business groups actually asked lawmakers to tax food wrappers and containers. Industry groups did emerge to oppose certain parts of the proposal–mainly, who would control the tax revenue and how it’s spent. Packagers and consumer brands wanted authority to manage the money and use it exclusively for recycling. Maine regulators and their allies in the Legislature wanted the revenues to reimburse municipalities for hauling waste to landfills, too.
The industry won that battle, and the bill–that has now passed– designated revenues for recycling. This legislation appears be the first of its kind in the country; it could give momentum to a broader push to curb plastic waste and rationalize a recycling system that is outdated and varies from town to town.
What I find really hopeful, however, is that I see this as an (admittedly small) step toward dealing with the serious challenges posed by externalities.
As I have often noted, I am a proponent of markets and capitalism–properly understood and properly regulated. The usual description of a working–and workable–market is that it is characterized by transactions between willing buyers and willing sellers who are each in possession of all information relevant to the transaction. That description is an accurate depiction of the ultimate purchase and sale, but it elides other, equally important assumptions–including the assumption that the pricing of a good accurately reflects the costs of its manufacture plus a reasonable profit.
That assumption isn’t necessarily accurate.
If I am manufacturing widgets, and the process involves the use or creation of a pollutant, the cost of production–and the price charged to the consumer– should include the expense of properly disposing of that pollutant. If –instead of following the rules for such disposal– I dump my contaminated waste in the local river (where it will have to be cleaned up by adjacent municipalities) I can price my widgets more advantageously than widget manufacturers who follow the rules and pay to dispose of their waste properly.
In a properly operating marketplace, the price of goods will reflect the complete cost of their manufacture–the expense of raw materials, all costs of turning those raw materials into a salable item, and the associated expenses of marketing and packaging. Appropriate regulations are those aimed at preventing some companies from gaining unfair advantage by “offloading” a portion of what should be their costs onto unsuspecting taxpayers.
Properly operating markets benefit us all. What doesn’t benefit us are (1) markets in clearly inappropriate economic sectors, like health care, where there is a huge (and unbridgeable) disparity in information and urgency between the parties to a transaction, and (2) inadequately or improperly regulated markets that allow–or even encourage–companies to profit by cheating.
The packaging issue being addressed in Maine isn’t an instance of cheating; technically, I doubt that the need to recycle packaging is even a true externality–at least, as economists would categorize it–but the need to recycle packaging waste clearly does impose a cost that is currently being covered by taxpayers rather than manufacturers.
Maine appears to be the first state to address the allocation of that expense, and it will be interesting to see how many other states (if any) follow suit. At the very least, efforts of this sort raise awareness of an issue that is all too easy to ignore.