Out of Control Policy Blog

More Thoughts on Plastic Bag Bans

A couple of months ago, I wrote a column for the U-T San Diego on the proposed statewide plastic bag ban in California (which, thankfully, ended up going down to a narrow defeat in the state Senate). The article discussed how such an arbitrary government ban would harm individual and economic liberties by violating consumers' and stores' right of contract by dictating stores' business practices, preventing people from using goods they want, and significantly harming the plastic bag industry, costing many their jobs. In addition, the piece noted how those in the anti-plastic-bag crusade tend to ignore inconvenient environmental facts about how paper and reusable bags consume more resources than plastic bags, and how reusable bags can even be harmful to public health.

The claims that plastic bags are worse for the environment than paper bags or cotton reusable bags are dubious at best. In fact, compared to paper bags, plastic grocery bags produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions, require 70 percent less energy to make, generate 80 percent less waste, and utilize less than 4 percent of the amount of water needed to manufacture them. This makes sense because plastic bags are lighter and take up less space than paper bags.

Reusable bags come with their own set of problems. They, too, have a larger carbon footprint than plastic bags. Even more disconcerting are the findings of several studies that plastic bag bans lead to increased health problems due to food contamination from bacteria that remain in the reusable bags. A November 2012 statistical analysis by University of Pennsylvania law professor Jonathan Klick and George Mason University law professor and economist Joshua D. Wright found that San Francisco’s plastic bag ban in 2007 resulted in a subsequent spike in hospital emergency room visits due to E. coli, salmonella, and campylobacter-related intestinal infectious diseases. The authors conclude that the ban even accounts for several additional deaths in the city each year from such infections.

In addition, I made a quick mention of the fact that a plastic bag ban would bring with it a new bureaucracy and regulatory costs that would ultimately fall upon consumers and taxpayers. On this point, I received a message from Anthony van Leeuwen, who runs the Fight The Plastic Bag Ban site. In his note, he confirmed my suspicions and detailed how such bag ban bureaucracies are affecting consumers and taxpayers who shop and live in the many local governments in California that have imposed such bans:

One of the aspects of most ordinances in California requires retailers to send quarterly, semi-annual, or annual reports to the local jurisdiction on the number of paper bags issued, the money collected from fees, and efforts the store made to promote reusable bag use.

These reports must then be processed by the local jurisdiction to ensure the ordinance is enforced, and data analyzed and reports made to the city council or board of supervisors. This then becomes a burden for the life of the ordinance unless the ordinance is amended to remove the reporting required after five years or so.

In addition, complaints and reports of non-compliance must be investigated—including site visits to stores—incurring local jurisdiction costs borne by the taxpayer.

Moreover, the costs of a forced switch from plastic bags to paper bags (for a fee) and reusable bags are quite large. An article on FightThePlasticBagBan.com reports that a statewide plastic bag ban would cost California residents more than $1 billion a year (see the full study here).

There is already talk of reviving the statewide bag ban in the next legislative session, but in the interests of individual freedom, economic prosperity, and sanity, let us hope that this idea is trashed instead of recycled.

See my full U-T San Diego column, "Bag ban bad for freedom and environment," here.

Adam Summers is Senior Policy Analyst


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