Burnett: Plastic Bag Bans Hurt Shoppers, Retailers and Workers

By H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D.
January 19, 2012, Exclusive for JunkScience.com

A small but increasing number of cities are in a frenzy to ban plastic shopping bags. More than two dozen cities nationwide have either banned plastic grocery bags (and in some cases, paper bags) entirely, or have imposed a fee for using them in order to encourage the use of reusable bags. However, such policies have hidden costs few seem to recognize.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that cities with bag bans have lost commerce, while surrounding cities and neighborhoods benefit as shoppers choose to go elsewhere.

This is consumer choice – most people prefer the plastic bag option for their convenience, flexibility, strength and other obvious reasons.

Many consumers use plastic bags at home. They can be used to line bathroom trash bins, collect Fido’s waste and Kitty’s cat litter, to securely seal the baby’s soiled diapers, and more. I use them to carry donation items, transport dry cleaning and for storage in my garage and attic. Without them, we will likely buy more trash bags and baggies to compensate.
As to recycling, it is increasing. Bag bans will reduce the motivation for those recycling efforts.

The reusable bags that are being pushed as an alternative to paper or plastic in locales across the nation have other, rarely considered, drawbacks. On the economic front, China is the leading manufacturer of reusable bags, while plastic bags are made in the U.S. with the industry employing thousands of workers. Thus, cities banning plastic bags are helping China take over one more industry while putting American workers in the unemployment line.

There are also health concerns associated with reusable bags and these problems are already making people sick. When used to carry meats, poultry or fish, blood and other fluids can soak into the reusable bags. If not cleaned regularly and stored properly, bacteria – including e-coli — can take up residence and mold can form. Continued use can contaminate the users own food and even the food of others as the contaminated reusable bags come into contact with the grocery conveyor belt. It’s true that reusable bags can be washed, but doing so shortens their useful life considerably.

Sadly, much of the push to ban plastic retail bags is based on false or misreported data.

Ban proponents claim that plastic bags are rarely used more than once and that they make up a large portion of landfill content litter on roadways. In Austin, the city council seems to be particularly influenced by a presentation from Bob Gedert, director of city department Austin Resource Recovery, in which he stated that plastic bags comprise 2.2 percent of the city’s litter. Gedert cited a study whose lead author was Steven Stein as the source for his claim.

However, Stein’s study never said that. In fact Gedert exaggerates the percentage of plastic bag litter by 366 percent. What Stein’s actually found was that plastic bag litter comprised only 0.6 percent of litter volume, not the 2.2 percent claimed by Gedert. Stein asked Gedert to make a correction. Even the 0.6 percent figure is high since it includes other types of plastic waste, such as industrial wrapping, dry cleaner and trash bags. Indeed, the national 2009 Keep America Beautiful study does not even include plastic bags in its top ten sources of litter.

Bad data makes bad policy. In this case, the evidence shows that plastic bags are a miniscule waste problem and that every city that bans plastic bags costs its shoppers, businesses, the city government and workers across the nation with little or no benefit for the environment or economy.

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. is a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis, a non-partisan, non-profit research institute with offices in Dallas, Texas and Washington, D.C.

13 thoughts on “Burnett: Plastic Bag Bans Hurt Shoppers, Retailers and Workers”

  1. Your right. I think leather shoes should be banned as well. How about all bags? You get your groceries in cardboard. I know let’s ban stuff period. You can’t buy stuff that’s it. Eat grass. Wait computers they are made from plastic let’s get rid of those as well. And those god damn tires. Yea let’s get rid of those too.

  2. Go live in a cave then and stop using your computer & electricity & using your car and anything else that trashes your precious planet & stop polluting the world with your garbage mouth

  3. We would be in the stone age if we didn’t have plastic and it was one of the greatest inventions.The average plastic bag in my house has a useful lifespan from store to disposal as long as I use it for the various different options, especially for cleaning out the cat litter box and bathroom trash can liners (I never have to buy liners for them!). I have a bag of bags that I save for when I need them. I would not and don’t know anyone who would throw them into the drains of Bancock 🙂 Plastic can be recycled many times over, and it’s not a one-time thing. Looking around us we should be grateful we have plastic… BTW, what is the keyboard made of that your typing on right now???

  4. Will, talk about ignorance. This planet will survive all of us. Everything is recycled, as even you admit by saying that nothing leaves this earth. Everything that we started with is still here and is recycled. Man does not create any new atoms or use them up, carbon or otherwise, but only alters the molecules, which amazingly nature changes back into original forms. May be we will kill off humanity but the earth will survive. Don’t be so angry at people who disagree with you!

  5. You guys cannot be serious. Plastic in general and plastic bags in particular are among the great blights of our age. A few years back, so many of them clogged up the drains in Bankok it caused a devastating flood and the government banned them out of the pure need to survive. Their production takes up large amounts of energy, oil and water and other resources and probably 90 % of them are not recycled. They end up in the ocean, in storm drains, streams, lakes and on the streets. The average plastic bag has a useful lifespan of 28 minutes, from store to disposal. And Vicki, I appreciate your attempt at recycling–most of the other readers here probably think recycling’s a Communist plot to take away their SUV’s or something–but the sad fact is that plastic can only be recycled once. In other words, your diligently recycled plastic bags can be turned into another useful form only once, and there is a very limited demand for the sort of stuff that can be made from recycled plastic. I’m sorry that y’all think that you should be able–on principle–to just trash the earth to your hearts delight, but the fact is all the crap we buy and “throw away” does not in fact go “away”. Where do you think it goes? Into outer space? It sticks around with us, right here, on this one planet we have, all seven billion of us, and we’re rapidly converting the place into one giant trash bin. Google up “great Pacific garbage patch” if you think I’m kidding. By some very credible estimates there is now more human-produced plastic junk in the oceans than there is living biomass. When I come across the type of smug, ignorant, self-absorbed complaints that folks have essayed on this comment page it’s enough to make one lose hope for the survival of the human race. It’s like you folks are the living manifestation of our culture’s death wish or something. And death is what I see in your blatantly moronic refusal to do even the simplest things–like use cloth groecery bags–to keep the destruction of the living world at bay. The death of the living planet and the extinction of the human race.

  6. Too long a discussion. Just return your bags for recycling. I do every week. It’s not very difficult.

  7. Washington State is banning plastic bags over the entire State! It is infuriating because I do recycle mine and I do not throw them away. The whole idea is an outrage! Don’t some people have more important things to worry about?

  8. In addition to the points mentioned by the author, reusable bags are (usually) much harder if not impossible to recycle as their fibers catch in the feed to the machines used in recycling.
    And if polyethylene is not used for plastic then it will be flared off as waste at the refineries, as it used to be before polythene was invented.

  9. Not disagreeing with the article, but I hate it when people exaggerate numbers. It always gives ammo to the opposition and detracts from the points being made. 2.2 is 266% more than 0.6, it is 366% of 0.6, so Gedert exaggerates the percentage of plastic bag litter *by* 266%, not 366%. I heard Tom Sullivan make the same mistake a couple of weeks ago.

  10. “Bad data makes policy.”

    I assume you meant, “Bad data makes bad policy,” but I suppose what you wrote is equally true. Heaven knows, good data is also too often used to make bad policy. It’s not so much the data, but the predicted effect that you imagine your new law is going to have on it. 🙁

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