First, the environmentalists wanted to get rid of paper grocery bags because they were the result of destroying too many trees. Then the market developed a lighter, stronger alternative in the form of plastic bags. Now the environmentalists want to get rid of these, too, and force everyone to bring their own reusable bags (typically made from cotton, hemp, or polypropylene, a plastic polymer different from that of the typical plastic grocery bag) when they go to the store.
Los Angeles recently became the latest—and largest—U.S. city to ban plastic grocery bags. By a 9-1 vote, the L.A. City Council voted to prohibit stores that sell perishable food from issuing plastic bags to customers, and would require the stores to charge customers 10 cents per recyclable paper bag used. Councilmember Bernard Parks cast the lone dissenting vote. Under the measure, larger stores—defined as those larger than 10,000 square feet, or which make more than $2 million per year—would have to comply beginning January 1, 2014, while smaller stores would have until July 1, 2014 before the rules kick in.
The L.A. plastic bag ban appears to have been modeled after a California statewide proposal that fell just three votes shy in the state Senate a few weeks prior to the L.A. vote. That bill, SB 405, introduced by State Senator Alex Padilla (D-Los Angeles), and its companion bill in the Assembly, AB 158, would similarly have banned plastic grocery bags and mandated that stores charge 10 cents per reusable paper bag. According to a Senate Floor bill analysis of SB 405, roughly 70 local governments—including Long Beach, Los Angeles County (unincorporated areas), San Francisco, San Jose, and Santa Clara County—in California have now implemented plastic bag bans. In addition, "Most of these cities and counties also require stores to charge a fee for a paper carryout bag, and a few have banned both single-use plastic and paper carryout bags."
Sen. Padilla claimed that the passage of the measure by the City of Los Angeles "breathes new life" into his statewide plastic bag ban proposal.
In a column for the U-T San Diego, I wrote about the state ban and why prohibiting plastic bags would be bad for both individual freedom and the environment:
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [see Table 19], plastic bags, sacks, and wraps of all kinds (not just grocery bags) make up only about 1.6 percent of all municipal solid waste materials. High-density polyethylene (HDPE) bags, which are the most common kind of plastic grocery bags, make up just 0.3 percent of this total.
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.
The description of plastic grocery bags as “single-use” bags is another misnomer. The vast majority of people use them more than once, whether for lining trash bins or picking up after their dogs. (And still other bags are recycled.) Since banning plastic bags also means preventing their additional uses as trash bags and pooper scoopers, one unintended consequence of the plastic bag ban would likely be an increase in plastic bag purchases for these other purposes. This is just what happened in Ireland in 2002 when a 15 Euro cent ($0.20) tax imposed on plastic shopping bags led to a 77 percent increase in the sale of plastic trash can liner bags.
In addition, a report for the U.K. Environment Agency found that cotton reusable bags would have to be used 131 times before they would have a lower global warming potential than HDPE bags. (And this was assuming that no HDPE bags were reused. Factoring in the extent to which HDPE bags are reused for trash bin liners and other purposes, the cotton reusable bags would have to be used 173 times to get the same result.) Unfortunately, according to another study, reusable bags are only used about 51 times before they are discarded, which, according to the former study, makes them much less environmentally-friendly.
If this was not enough, plastic bag bans come with serious economic costs. Customers have to pay for the more costly paper and reusable bags in the form of higher food costs, taxpayers have to pay for an inflated government bueaucracy (not to mention the paper bag taxes that are oftentimes imposed), and lots of people that work in the plastic bag industry are put out of work. According to one industry estimate, a statewide plastic grocery ban in California would threaten approximately 2,000 jobs in the plastic bag manufacturing and recycling industry.
Banning things—whether they be fireworks, foam fast-food containers, fast-food kids' meal toys, medical marijuana dispensaries, or even sleeping in your own car—unfortunately seems to be a popular public policy, especially at the local government level. And plastic bag bans are especially en vogue these days, despite their mistaken or ignorant economic and environmental foundations. Let us hope that when such proposals are inevitably brought up again in California and in state and local governments across the nation, rationality will win out over groundless emotional pleas, and freedom will triumph over nanny-statism. As I maintained in the U-T San Diego article,
Environmentalists have every right to try to convince people to adopt certain beliefs or lifestyles, but they do not have the right to use government force to compel people to live the way they think best. In a free society, we are able to live our lives as we please, so long as we do not infringe upon the rights of others. That includes the right to make such fundamental decisions as “Paper or plastic?”
See the full column here.