Plastic bag bans doing more harm than good

By Victor Nava
Guest columnist
Posted8/26/2015 1:00 AM
  • Victor Nava

    Victor Nava

The last couple months, the war on plastic bags has seemingly gained key victories in the city of Chicago and the state of Hawaii, where plastic bag bans have gone into effect.

When the Hawaiian island of Oahu implemented a ban on plastic checkout bags in July, Oahu became the last island in the state to implement a plastic bag ban, making Hawaii the first state with a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags. However, residents of the Aloha State and Chicago are now realizing that plastic bag bans come with an assortment of unintended consequences that may end up doing more harm than good to residents and the environment.

While retailers in Hawaii can no longer provide customers the kind of "single-use" plastic bags you typically get at a grocery store, the law allows for thicker plastic bags or paper bags to be given out to customers. The thicker plastic bags are durable enough to be considered reusable under the patchwork of county laws, but these bags have the potential to be much more harmful to the environment.

The thicker bags can take up to 10 times longer to deteriorate than thin plastic bags. Thicker plastic and paper bags also take more resources and energy to create, transport, and recycle -- meaning that they have a much larger carbon footprint than traditional plastic bags.

While all this may be an inconvenient truth for environmentalists, at least beaches and parks will have the appearance of being cleaner, right?

Not exactly. To begin with, plastic bags make up a very small percentage of visible litter in the United States. In 2007, when San Francisco decided to implement a ban, plastic bags amounted to 0.5 percent of litter in the city, according to one study. Yet, two years after the ban, the percentage of plastic bag litter in San Francisco jumped to 1.5 percent.

Plastic bag bans come with economic consequences as well as environmental ones.

On Aug. 1, Chicago's plastic bag ban took effect. Like Hawaii, the Chicago law allows retailers to offer thicker "reusable" plastic bags or paper bags instead. Chicago's ban will be applicable only to franchises and chain stores at the beginning, but it will extend to more businesses starting in 2016.

Some in Chicago are worried about the economic impact the ban will have. Alderman Leslie Hairston voted against the ordinance because she was concerned about how the additional costs associated with providing paper bags (which cost as much as three times more than plastic) may affect attracting more grocery stores to the South Side, where businesses are already reluctant to open.

In a statement opposing the bag ban, the Illinois Retail Merchants Association said that increasing expenses for retailers and consumers while not actually helping the environment "flies in the face of the city's goal to make Chicago one of the nation's greenest cities and support companies that have invested significantly in Chicago's neighborhoods."

Earlier this year, the Huntington Beach, California City Council overturned its plastic bag ban, saying there was no evidence that the ban was actually helping the environment. Residents and business owners also were frustrated with the cost and inconvenience of reusable bags. In June, the Dallas City Council voted to repeal its plastic bag ordinance, too.

Plastic bag bans are typical pieces of "feel-good" legislation with no regard for the unintended consequences that follow. The so-called "environmentalists" behind plastic bag bans fail to point out that reusable and paper bags are much worse for the environment in the long run.

When residents and politicians in Hawaii and Chicago realize that their bag bans are not only just environmental smoke and mirrors but also could have a negative economic impact, let's hope leaders will follow what officials in Huntington Beach and Dallas did -- and repeal the plastic bag bans.

Victor Nava is a staff writer at The Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, an Alexandria, Virginia,-based agency in support of public policies that emphasize liberty and free markets.

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