Before they came for our light bulbs, they targeted our plastic bags. And they’re still after them.
It all began in 2002, when Ireland enacted a plastic-bag tax for the clearly stated purpose of lowering the amount of litter in the country. The fact that it would also raise tax revenue was an added bonus. And sure enough, weeks after its passage, the New York Times was already reporting a 94 percent drop in plastic-bag use, as reusable bags quickly caught on among Irish shoppers.
So naturally, when San Francisco (big surprise) became the first U.S. city to pass an all-out ban on plastic grocery bags, in 2007, supporters were quick to highlight Ireland’s case as an example of the positive impact such legislation would have on the environment. Aside from making up a sizeable percentage of total litter, they argued, the bags took up a large amount of space in landfills and were difficult to recycle.
In the years since passage of the San Francisco ban, several more municipalities have enacted similar legislation, including bans in Santa Monica and the unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County and a tax in Washington D.C. In Oregon, a statewide plastic-bag ban has been introduced in the legislature, as have prospective statewide bag taxes in both Indiana and Maryland. And why not? Such legislation reduces the amount of solid waste, promotes the use of reusable bags, and (in the case of taxes) increases much-needed revenue for state and local governments all at once, right?
Well, not quite.
Unfortunately, study after study has shown that most of the supposed “benefits” of these bans and taxes have a negligible effect on the environment at best, and can actually have unintended consequences that cause greater environmental harm. Take Ireland, for example. When the New York Times reported the 94 percent decrease, it neglected to specify that it was referring only to plastic grocery-bag use. Sales of non-grocery plastic bags (garbage bags, etc.) rose an astonishing 400 percent, amounting to a net increase of 10 percent in total plastic-bag consumption. In an interview with National Review Online, Patrick Gleason, state-affairs manager of Americans for Tax Reform, explains why.
“I don’t know about you, but bags from the store I usually keep to reuse again, to line waste bins, clean up after a pet, etc., so when you don’t have a stockpile built up and aren’t saving these bags, you have to go buy new ones. This goes together with the nonsensical nature of this policy, which has no positive impact on the environment. What’s the point of discriminating against bags on one side of the checkout from bags on the other?” Similar results were found in San Francisco, where, as Gleason notes, “not only was there no change in [the amount of] total litter, but plastic bags comprised a greater share of the litter after the ban.”
The fact is that in most U.S. locations, plastic bags account for a small fraction of total litter and landfill space. Philip Rozenski, director of marketing and sustainability for Hilex Poly, the largest plastic-bag manufacturer in the U.S. (and admittedly not a disinterested party), told NRO: “It has been shown over and over again that bags are less than 3 percent of litter, and in many locations, like San Francisco before the ban, it was less than 1 percent of litter.” Contrary to the beliefs of many ban proponents, plastic grocery bags are 100 percent recyclable, and according to the EPA, 13 percent of bags and wraps were recycled last year. “Theoretically we can go up to 90 to 100 percent recycled content,” noted Rozenski, “but 60 percent of the bags are reused as bin liners by consumers, so we have an industry goal to get to 25 or 30 percent.” Unfortunately, banning the bags has usually led grocery stores to shut down their plastic-recycling programs, contributing further to the problem that was meant to be solved.
In addition to the damaging environmental effects of these bans and taxes, there are often significant negative economic outcomes. Unlike Ireland, which had imported most of its bags from China, the U.S. has vibrant plastic manufacturing, recycling, and secondary industries, all of which would be hurt greatly were bans and taxes to increase. For example, Rozenski notes that most composite-lumber companies use recycled bag content when manufacturing their product. “You’re looking at 4,000, maybe 5,000 [recycling] jobs that are created, and it’s a growing industry. With composite lumbers, it puts the number getting near 10,000 direct and indirect jobs through plastic-bag recycling.”
And as is almost always the case with legislation like this, the unintended economic consequences hurt the poor more than anyone else, since it destroys jobs and adds unnecessary additional expenses to daily life. Gleason noted that when a statewide ban was being considered in California, certain groups that one might not expect came out in opposition. “You had groups like the NAACP of California that were part of our opposition to this, because bag bans and taxes hurt lower-income houses, small businesses, and often minority neighborhoods the most. In D.C., small-business owners were the group of people that disdained the bag tax more than any other out there.”
What about all that supposed new revenue from the plastic-bag tax in Washington D.C.? Gleason explains that it suffers from the same problem inherent in the cigarette tax. “These lawmakers, they want to raise the cigarette tax . . . but the thing is, they also say ‘We’re going to raise money off it, and we’re also going to stop or decrease the activity.’ Those two goals work at cross-purposes, so that’s why you see revenue projections come in far below what they think they’re going to get.”
Finally, there’s the issue of the reusable bags that are supposedly a green alternative to plastic. Most of those used in the U.S. were manufactured in China, and numerous studies have documented unsafe levels of lead in the bags, far in excess of the allowable limits, a problem that prompted a statement by Sen. Chuck Schumer on the issue. Additionally, studies have found high levels of e. coli bacteria present in many reusable bags unless they are washed after every use, sparking additional concerns over public health.
How will this whole debate turn out? Gleason is hopeful. “I think momentum is swinging in favor of those who oppose unnecessary bag taxes and bans. Lawmakers focusing on this stuff are going to find that the public by and large doesn’t agree with what they’re trying to do, and they think it’s a distraction from the real challenges facing states and localities.” Those who wish to feel virtuous can still carry reusable bags, but they should refrain from imposing their sense of rectitude on others.
– Nat Brown is a comments editor at National Review Online.