Business & Economics Statehouse

How Dumb Is the Plastic Bag Ban?

by Rob Roper

Even dumber than you probably think.

Forget the arguments we’ve made regarding the constitutional appropriateness of legislators deciding “paper or plastic” for us citizens in what is ostensibly a free society, and let’s pretend for a moment this is a legitimate exercise of government force. Is it a smart idea? Is it justified because it will in some measure help save the planet? No.

The objective of the plastic grocery bag ban, as stated by its supporters, is to force customers to bring their own reusable bags to the store, thus reducing litter and landfill waste. But, does it? According to testimony before the House Fish & Wildlife Committee, the thin plastic bags are actually on the whole better for the environment than the alternatives. “They require fewer resources to produce, they’re domestically manufactured, the vast majority of Americans regularly reuse them, most often as trash can liners or to pick up waste.”

According to an April 9 report by NPR (those right wing radicals!), in places where the plastic grocery bags were banned, sales of retail garbage bags skyrocketed by 120 percent. Being thicker than the flimsy grocery bags, this creates more plastic waste. The Vermont bill under consideration which would define “reusable” a 4 mil thick would require using 8 times more plastic. In addition, the bans created 80 million pounds of extra paper trash per year as people simply switched to paper bags. To quote from the article:

Plastic haters, it’s time to brace yourselves. A bunch of studies find that paper bags are actually worse for the environment. They require cutting down and processing trees, which involves lots of water, toxic chemicals, fuel and heavy machinery. While paper is biodegradable and avoids some of the problems of plastic, Taylor says, the huge increase of paper, together with the uptick in plastic trash bags, means banning plastic shopping bags increases greenhouse gas emissions.

If you believe that we have twelve years to get our greenhouse gas emissions under control or we’ll all die, as many of the bag-banners profess, this should be “game over” for plastic bag ban legislation, should it not?

But what about forcing people to use cloth bags (hence the brief flirtation with banning paper bags as well)? Again from NPR:

The Danish government recently did a study that took into account environmental impacts beyond simply greenhouse gas emissions, including water use, damage to ecosystems and air pollution. These factors make cloth bags even worse. They estimate you would have to use an organic cotton bag 20,000 times more than a plastic grocery bag to make using it better for the environment.

That’s once a week for 385 years.

So, here’s where things stand…. We know that the policy will generate more greenhouse gas emissions, will not do much if anything to reduce litter and land-fill waste, and will put Americans, who do manufacture thin grocery bags but don’t manufacture the heavier “reusable” plastic and cloth textile bags, out of work in favor of Asian manufacturers, who are the overwhelming source of plastic pollution in the Pacific Ocean, which is the real problem!

Yet, despite having heard all of this our elected officials look likely to go forward with this inane, intrusive, expensive, inconvenient, unhelpful to anyone policy anyway.

Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute

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