Many jurisdictions have implemented bans or taxes on plastic grocery bags on environmental grounds. PERC fellow Jonathan Klick argues, however, that reusable grocery bags contain potentially harmful bacteria, especially coliform bacteria such as E. coli.
From the Property and Environment Research Center, here’s a thought-provoking little vid about why we should all think a little more deeply about the unintended consequences of even our best intentions before we push for government fiat to make them a reality. The environmental movement in particular tends to be a big fan of forcing society to comply with what they deem to be virtuous behavior via government crackdown. The EPA is constantly justifying it’s many regulations by claiming that they’re only safeguarding the public’s health and welfare — for instance, that the costs of their clean-air regulations are trumped by the fact that they could be saving the lives of asthma-prone infants. But if saving lives is our ultimate goal, it looks like the eco-trendy set, in pushing for more plastic grocery-bag bans, may inadvertently be perpetuating a policy that could be causing a rise in food-borne illnesses. Maybe it’s actually a good idea to dispose of the materials with which we transport our raw foods — just something to think about.
Plastic Bag Bans Are Silly
The Times of London addressed this very issue in 2008, even quoting a Greenpeace biologist saying, “It’s very unlikely that many animals are killed by plastic bags. The evidence shows just the opposite. We are not going to solve the problem of waste by focusing on plastic bags.”
One of the most commonly heard claims is that plastic bags, and other plastic, have created the “Pacific Garbage Patch.” Some claim it is twice the size of Texas. This is simply false. Last year, Oregon State University reported that the actual amount is less than one percent the size of Texas. Oceanography professor Angel White sent out a release last year saying, “There is no doubt that the amount of plastic in the world’s oceans is troubling, but this kind of exaggeration undermines the credibility of scientists.”
Additionally, White notes that the amount of plastic in the ocean hasn’t been increasing. For example, the Wood’s Hole Oceanographic Institute found the amount of plastic in the Atlantic Ocean hasn’t increased since the 1980s.
This doesn’t mean plastic bags cause no impact. When determining the environmental costs and benefits, however, we need to be honest about the science.
Indeed, there are risks from banning plastic grocery bags.
The most significant environmental risk from banning plastic bags is the increase in energy use. Plastic bags are the most energy-efficient form of grocery bag. The U.K. Environment Agency compared energy use for plastic, paper and re-usable bags. It found the “global warming potential” of plastic grocery bags is one-fourth that of paper bags and 1/173rd that of a reusable cotton bag. In other words, consumers would have to use a reusable cotton bag 173 times before they broke even from an energy standpoint. Thus, even if consumers switched to reusable bags, it is not clear there would be a reduced environmental impact.