Starting today, plastic grocery shopping bags have been banned in the city of Los Angeles. Shoppers are now required to either bring their own reusable bags, pay extra for paper bags, or… grow extra arms?
Proponents claim the bag ban will be better for the environment. This is disputable. A 2012 article in Reason described the reality of plastic-bag pollution:
First, banning free plastic grocery bags won’t reduce waste. California’s Statewide Waste Characterization Study [pdf] shows that “Plastic Grocery and Other Merchandise Bags” consistently make up just 0.3 percent of the waste stream in the state. That’s three-tenths of 1 percent. In comparison, organic waste such as food and yard clippings makes up 32 percent while construction debris comprises about 30 percent. The effect of eliminating free grocery bags on the amount of waste generated in the city would be insignificant.
Second, despite misleading claims from environmental groups and the L.A. Bureau of Sanitation, banning free plastic grocery bags won’t do much to reduce litter in the public commons. Litter studies from across the country demonstrate that, on average, plastic retail bags make up about 1 percent to 2 percent of all litter.
Even that small amount of litter doesn’t decline when bans are enacted. In San Francisco, plastic bags comprised 0.6 percent of litter before the city banned plastic bags and 0.64 percent a year after the ban took effect [pdf, pg. 35]. Since plastic grocery bags make up less than 2 percent of roadside trash, banning them will affect neither the total amount of litter nor the cost of cleaning it up.
Third, banning free plastic grocery bags won’t reduce our consumption of foreign (or domestic) oil. L.A.’s Bureau of Sanitation claims [pdf] that “approximately 12 million barrels of oil go into the US supply of plastic bags.” But plastic bags made in the U.S. are not derived from oil; they’re made from a byproduct of domestic natural gas refinement. Manufacturing plastic grocery bags does not increase our need to import oil, and banning them in Los Angeles or anywhere else will not reduce US oil consumption.
Despite claims that plastics threaten our oceans and sea life, there is no evidence that free plastic grocery bags make up any significant portion of the plastic waste found on beaches or in the ocean. In fact, reports from environmental groups doing beach and ocean clean-ups show that plastic bags make up only about 2 percent of the debris.
There’s a lot more in that Reason article about the myths and realities of plastic bags, including the economic harm it will likely do to thousands who will lose their jobs. I recommend reading the whole thing.
And what about public health? And I’m not just thinking of what people are going to use to pick up their dog’s droppings while on a walk. This 2010 Washington Post article describes the inherent health hazards of reusable plastic bags, themselves:
Nearly every bag examined for bacteria by researchers at the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University found whopping amounts of bugs. Coliform bacteria, suggesting raw-meat or uncooked-food contamination, was in half of the bags, and E. coli was found in 12 percent of the bags.
Running the bags through a washer or cleaning them by hand reduced bacteria levels to almost nothing, the study reported, but nearly all shoppers questioned said they do not regularly, if ever, wash their reusable bags. About a third said they also used their food-shopping bags to haul around non-food items.
Sure, we can wash them and even bleach them, but is it your business to put us in a position of having to do that? We’ll come back to this in a minute.
Finally, there’s a crime issue. Seattle banned plastic bags in July, 2012. Since then grocery stores have reported a sharp increase in shoplifting:
Mike Duke, who operates the Lake City Grocery Outlet with his wife, said that since the plastic-bag ban started last July, he’s lost at least $5,000 in produce and between $3,000 and $4,000 in frozen food.
“We’ve never lost that much before,” said Duke, who found those numbers through inventories of stolen and damaged goods.
The Dukes opened the Lake City grocery store in June 2011, and Mike Duke said in the year before the plastic-bag ban losses in frozen food and produce were a small fraction of what he’s seeing now. As he explained to seattlepi.com and also the North Seattle Chamber of Commerce, the shoplifters’ patterns are difficult to detect.
They enter the store with reusable bags and can more easily conceal items they steal. The reusable bags require staff to watch much more closely, and even though the store has a loss-prevention officer and more than a dozen security cameras, it’s tough to tell what a customer has paid for and what they may already have brought with them.
They’ve even seen an upswing in plastic hand-baskets being stolen (Hey, shoplifters have to carry their loot in something!) and then found dumped around the city. Shall we ban those, too?
More importantly –and this ties into the health issue– is it the place of the Los Angeles city council to impose these risks on residents and businesses?
The answer is no. When our streets are falling apart, when the city’s finances are a wreck, when the schools badly underperform, there are far better uses for councilmen’s time (and the salary money we pay them) than to pass a needless, possibly harmful law for the sake of “promoting environmental awareness” or “making a statement.” The intentions may be good, but we all know where that path leads.
Returning to the Reason article, author Jay Beeber speaks for me when he touches on the larger issue the bag ban is a symptom of — government that has grown too large and too intrusive in people’s lives:
But the real crisis—the one that rarely gets discussed—is that these types of bans require another public acceptance of total government intrusion into our lives. Is it a legitimate role of government to prohibit one individual from giving a free bag to another individual on the pretext of a supposed societal benefit that does not withstand even friendly scrutiny? Doesn’t every human interaction, no matter how small, have some arguable effect on society? And if so, what’s to prevent those who seek to dictate how everyone lives from invoking that argument at every turn? The crisis in Los Angeles and around the country is that too few people are asking those questions.
As an Angeleno, a taxpayer, and a voter, I ask that you members of the LA city council ask these questions of yourselves and then do the right thing.
Repeal the ban.