Pro-Choice on Shopping Bags

One of my primary objections to plastic carryout bag bans is that it imposes someone else’s solution to a perceived problem on everyone else.  It does so, by banning plastic carryout bags and imposing a fee of 10 or 25 cents on paper bags to coerce the customer into using reusable shopping bags.  While customers can always bring their own bags of any type, including plastic carryout bags, to the store to take their purchases home, the stores are only allowed to sell paper bags or reusable bags to the customer.   By implementing the ban through state law or through local ordinance, the freedom of merchants to offer their customers a plastic or paper carryout bag free of charge is curtailed.   

The perceived problem with plastic carryout bags can be reduced to the following areas: (1) harm to marine wildlife; and (2) roadside litter.

Plastic bags and “other” plastic debris consisting of bottle caps, plastic cigarette lighters, shards of plastic, etc. can and do harm marine wildlife.  80% of all plastic bags and plastic debris in the ocean come from land based sources via storm drains and rivers. 

This problem is currently being solved by installation of trash excluders on storm drains through the Total Maximum Daily Loads program under the federal Clean Water Act.  These trash excluders will capture all trash, including plastic bags and other plastic debris and prevent this material from reaching the ocean.  This solution is far more effective in preventing harm to marine wildlife than banning a single product, e.g. the plastic carryout bag. 

What makes the plastic carryout bag somewhat of a nuisance is its lightweight and large surface area that catches the wind.  Because these bags get caught on weeds, bushes, trees, fences, rock outcroppings, etc. the bag has the lowest probability of reaching the ocean and highest probability of being removed from the environment by litter removal efforts.

The plastic carryout bag is a very small component of unsightly roadside litter.  The vast majority of roadside litter consists of fast food trash and candy wrappers.  

The City of Pasadena noted in their plastic bag ban study, that plastic carryout bags fly out of trash trucks as windblown debris while trucks are traveling to a local landfill.  Obviously, had the load of trash been properly covered, plastic bags and other trash would not have ended up as windblown debris. 

The State of California acknowledges that improperly covered truck loads are the primary source of roadside litter and that local jurisdictions should work with haulers to ensure loads are properly covered.  This would be far more effective in keeping our roadsides free from litter than trying to ban a single product.

The benefits of a plastic bag ban are marginal, at best.  Since plastic carryout bags are only a small part of all roadside litter, banning the plastic carryout bag will not allow for litter removal budgets to be reduced; hence, no cost savings or other benefit to local government.

Banning the plastic carryout bag and encouraging the use of reusable bags with the associated health hazards will require consumers to periodically wash or sanitize their bags.  This results in an increase in water and energy consumption and generation of greenhouse gases.  Since water and energy are in short supply in most of Southern California a more efficient solution is to use off-the-shelf sanitary plastic or paper bags where water and energy used during manufacturing of the bags can be more efficiently controlled than consumers washing their own reusable bags.

Consumers will have to make choices about the kind of shopping bags to use.  For more information, see the article “Shopping Will Cost More With Plastic Bag Ban”.

The tradeoff between the reusable, paper, or plastic bags shows that doing nothing is a far better solution for the environment and for our precious freedom to choose our own carryout bags.

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