Should plastic drinking straws be taxed akin to plastic bags?

Analysis of the debate about whether plastic drinking straws should be taxed

On the 5th October 2015, a 5p charge for single-use plastic bags was introduced across England.

Described by the TaxPayers Alliance as the “shopping tax”, the charged was estimated to cost “£67 to the cost of living per household in England over 10 years”. However, the TPA and others arguably underestimated the extent to which English people love a bargain.

Lots of consumers now think twice about leaving the house to do their shopping without bringing bags from home. Recent figures have suggested that plastic bag usage in England has fallen by 85% since the 5p charge was introduced. Thus, the “cost of living” would be no means inevitably increase; those who were keen to watch their spending could avoid this added cost by simply reusing bags.

The charge was based on the “polluter pays” principle; if bags were reused over and over again as intended, there would be no additional costs to households. Only those who did not reuse plastic bags would incur the added cost.

As a result of the charge, large supermarkets are estimated to have raised £23 billion from the charge. This money has been donated to a variety of charitable causes including Sue Ryder, Keep Britain Tidy and Dementia Research Centre at University College London.

Thus, for critics concerned that revenues raised from the plastic bag charge would simply go to central government and thus risk being not spent effectively, this hasn’t been the case; the money raised has gone to charitable causes.

Some campaigners have suggested that a similar charge should be introduced for plastic drinking straws.  The main argument in favour of this policy is a simple one: plastic straws are unnecessary and a small charge would encourage people to not use them.

In addition, the policy announcement would raise further awareness about plastic pollution. It would put plastic pollution on the agenda and up for debate and discussion.

It is also argued to be fair, just and progressive because akin to the plastic bag charge, it is based on the polluter pays principle; the cost is minimal and is only paid by those who consume plastic straws.

However, the policy would not be without its critics. Libertarians would argue that the policy is a violation economic liberty – governments furthering telling people what they can and cannot do.

Alternatively, another argument against the policy is that drinking through a straw is much better for dental health as liquids are less likely to come into direct contact with teeth.   However, zero waste activists might respond to this remark by advocating for the use of stainless steel straws or paper straws instead.

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