Energy & Environment

A NJ Politician Wants to Ban Paper and Plastic Bags, but He Should Think Twice

A man carries plastic shopping bags in Manhattan, April 2, 2019. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to minimize litter and protect the environment, but government intervention can sometimes have unintended consequences.

One New Jersey politician wants to amend a bill that would ban plastic bags to make it even stricter — by banning paper bags as well.

State senator Bob Smith (D., Middlesex) said he got the idea while on vacation in Aruba, where the bag laws are very strict.

“Nobody’s grumbling,” Smith told NJ.com about the island’s residents bringing their own bags to the store. “Everybody in the line, they all do it.”

According to NJ.com, Aruba bans retailers from handing out plastic bags, and charges an approximately 28-cent fee for paper ones.

But Smith, of course, wants to make his bag ban even more severe, banning retailers from distributing paper bags altogether. The purpose, of course, would be to limit litter. But would Smith’s idea have the impact on the environment that he really wants it to have?

In a column for Reason, Christian Britschgi writes that he’s inclined to think that it wouldn’t. For one thing, he notes the fact that although California’s plastic bag ban did reduce “plastic bag consumption overall,” a study of its impact found that it also led “to a 120 percent spike in the purchase of smaller garbage bags.” This makes sense. After all, most people don’t just throw away the plastic bags that they get at the grocery store; they use them for other things. I’m going to keep it honest and admit that I haven’t really gone grocery shopping in years (it’s always seemed pointless to me to cook for one), but I know that the plastic bags I get from my (endless stream of) delivery food orders always go toward other purposes. For example, I use them to clean my cat’s litter box — because paper bags are impossible to tie shut, and I’m not going to throw loose cat waste down the garbage chute because I am not a sociopath. The fact that a reusable bag would be even less practical for this purpose should be obvious, but in case it isn’t, let me spell it out: I tend to not really want to keep things once they have been touched with cat sh**, and I don’t think that I’m alone in that. I also use either plastic or paper (instead of reusable) bags to line my small bathroom garbage can, because I feel the same way about snot.

Now that plastic bags are going to be banned in New York, I can fully admit that this does not mean I am going to start, say, dumping cat sh** into my purse and carrying it to the trash chute. No — I’m just going to buy more plastic garbage bags. What’s more, if something like this strict all-bag ban idea were to ever take effect, I’d have to use even more plastic ones than I already do, because I wouldn’t have any paper ones around for other single-use purposes such as lining that bathroom trash can. I can’t say what the impact overall would be, but I can say that, at least for me, my environmental footprint would be worse.

Speaking of environmental footprints, Britschgi also points out that those reusable tote bags that Smith so proudly watched Arubans using in their stores unfortunately have their own negative environmental impacts. In fact, as Britschgi notes, that same study of California’s bag ban actually “found that reusable cotton bags would have to be reused 131 times in order to have the same impact on the climate as single-use plastic bags.” That’s a lot of times to have to use one of those bags to make it worth it, and it’s not like they’re the most durable things in the world. The handles can fray and break, holes can form from wear-and-tear, food can spill inside of them, they can get lost. To me, it seems highly unlikely that anyone has ever used one of those bags 131 times — and if they have, that’s kind of nasty, because something that’s been used that many times to carry raw chicken around probably isn’t the cleanest thing in the world.

Finally, Britschgi writes that he’s concerned that the all-bag ban might actually increase other kinds of litter. As he points out, a survey of the state’s roadside litter found that things such as cups and candy wrappers tend to become litter more than any type of bag.

“It’s also possible that a total bag ban could encourage more littering in some instances, as shoppers would have no ready receptacle to collect the wrappers, cups, or containers that came with their purchase,” Britschgi writes.

Now, I completely understand that Smith’s heart must have been in the right place with his idea. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to minimize litter and protect the environment. In fact, I think that doing so is very important. The thing is, though, government intervention can sometimes have unintended consequences — and it’s important to examine and consider those before making new rules.

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