December 30, 2014
California's citizens get the vote Seattle's did not
Politics and Environmental Policy News
by Nicholas Kerr, 11:00 PM

Three cheers for the likelihood that California's ban on plastic shopping bags will end up on the ballot for voters to weigh the pros and cons. It was scheduled to be phased in starting in July, but opponents appear to have gathered enough signatures to allow citizens rather than legislators to decide. This is as things should be and the proper use of a referendum. The people of California are well able to weigh the pros and cons of a ban on something as basic as a shopping bag. This isn't the sort of thing that the legislature should have passed without a vote of the people. The same is true of Seattle's ban, which the council rushed through during the holiday period in 2011, making it difficult to organize signature collection for a ballot initiative here.

This ban is a blunt policy initiative imposed on all because of the actions of a few. Rather than target the small number of miscreants that dispose of bags irresponsibly, Seattle and California have decided to inconvenience everyone who likes the myriad benefits of them. As research for the Australian Government noted:

"The current plastic shopping bag is well suited to its task. It is cheap, lightweight, resource efficient, functional, moisture resistant, allows for quick packing at the supermarket and is remarkably strong for its weight."

Aside from the affront to personal choice that this sort of policy imposes, the claimed environmental benefits are dubious, it hurts the poor the most, results in longer checkout times and it increases the risk of health issues. Moreover, the so-called problem of plastic bags that the ban is supposed to solve is greatly exaggerated. In Australia, it's estimated that plastic bags make up 2% or less of the litter stream and in New Zealand it's estimated that plastic bags only make up 0.2% of landfill.

Like many policies proposed in the name of the environment, a ban on plastic bags sounds like it might be sensible. However, this ignores the resultant costs of the ban. In Seattle, we've experienced a massive increase in the use of paper bags, the most convenient alternative if you don't bring your own bag. As a Scottish Study found, switching to paper bags results in:

"[H]igher consumption of water, emissions of greenhouse gases and eutrophication of water bodies (rivers, lakes, etc.)"

The paper bag is also far less strong than the plastic bag it replaced, so at checkout they are frequently doubled up. And they have far fewer opportunities to be reused, whereas the rate of reuse of plastic shopping bags is estimated to be as high as 75%. This was true in our house, where we used to line all our trash cans, pack lunches or scoop up our dog's poop with them. The ban has meant we now buy plastic bags for all these purposes. These new bags use far higher density plastic and of course we can only use them once for the above purposes. So much for the "reuse" element in the three R's of the environment.

Like many policies, this ban hurts the poor the most. They now have to buy reusable bags or pay the new fee for the paper bags. As a percentage of their income these additional costs are far higher than for the wealthy. We've all stood in line when someone puts more items on the belt than they can afford and they have to figure out what they can do without until their next visit. In addition to that, now if they don't have a bag they're likely to have to weigh up whether they should overfill their paper bags and risk an explosion on their way home or pay for extra and leave without a grocery item they wanted. As the Seattle Times noted this week, one of the reasons the nuclear family is making a comeback in Seattle is because wealthy couples can afford to live here, but these sorts of cost increases are forcing out single parent families. They only have to cross Lake Washington to enjoy free plastic bags and other cheaper costs of living.

The Seattle ban has also resulted in longer checkout times, because reusable bags and paper bags aren't nearly as efficient to pack as the plastic bags. Dozens of these used to fit neatly into the now redundant wire frames at the counter. When one bag was filled, the next one would be pulled out ready to be stuffed with groceries as the full one was placed in your shopping cart. Paper bags don't measure up and reusable bags are even worse because they can't stand on their own, so both add time to every check out.

A further downside to the ban is that reusable grocery bags pose a far higher risk to public health. As one study that tested the bags of shoppers in LA, San Francisco and Tucson found:

"[T]he bacteria levels found in reusable bags were significant enough to cause a wide range of serious health problems and even lead to death. This is a particular danger for young children who are especially vulnerable to foodborne illnesses. The study found that people were not aware of the potential risks. A full 97 percent of those interviewed have never washed or bleached their bags."

When properly evaluated, a plastic bag ban is a blunt instrument that imposes much higher costs than any perceived benefits it delivers, and society as a whole is the poorer for it. In spite of this, the citizens of California may vote for a ban. That is their right. Seattle's citizens ought to have had the same opportunity to decide.


Cross posted at nkerr.com


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