Politics & Policy

Welcome Back, Plastic Bags

A shopper carries a plastic bag in the Manhattan borough of New York City, March 1, 2020. (Jeenah Moon/Reuters)
They’re better, cheaper, and safer than reusable cloth bags. Liberals hate that.

Single-use plastic bags are a miracle of modern technology. Cheap, light, convenient, and ubiquitous, they provide an elegant solution to a problem. If you recycle them, as most people do, and put your rubbish in them, that creates a net reduction in carbon emissions compared with buying the heavier, thicker garbage bags sold in stores. Best of all, they’re sanitary.

Cue up a head-spinning headline: San Francisco has just banned the use of reusable tote bags and switched back to single-use plastic bags to help fight the spread of the coronavirus. In New Hampshire, on March 21, Governor Chris Sununu signed an executive order to the same effect. Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker followed suit on March 25. A Maine ban on plastic bags was due to take effect on April 22 but has just been pushed back until next year.

Whoever could have warned us that cloth tote bags were unhygienic? Well, there was this New York Post columnist who wrote, six years ago, “Reusing that Earth-friendly tote gradually turns it into a chemical weapon” and noted that plastic-bag bans were associated in one study with a 46 percent increase in death from food-borne illnesses. Cloth tote bags are inconvenient, they’re eco-unfriendly (more carbon emissions than single-use plastic, unless you use them more than 14 times, which people tend not to do), and oh, by the way, they’re deadly.

So what was the impetus behind plastic-bag bans in the first place? Liberals find plastic annoying. Think of liberalism as the teen girl Disgust from the movie Inside Out, who comically overreacts to everything that makes her uncomfortable. Except when liberals say “Ew,” they quell their emotional reactions with regulation. Occasionally you’ll see a plastic bag stuck in some branches or a storm drain, and liberals can’t have that. Ew! “You see them hanging in trees in poorer communities like bizarre Christmas ornaments,” New York governor Andrew Cuomo said last April. “They are all over the waterways. There’s no reason for them; it’s about time we ban them.” So Cuomo did in fact ban them, starting March 1, although because the ban is not due to be enforced until May 15, some New York stores still offer them, even as others have already yanked them.

You can imagine the grinding noises that must be taking place in the back of Cuomo’s mouth these days as he considers the possibility that he was wrong. The state of New York has taken breathtakingly extreme and unprecedented steps to slow the spread of the virus, but because no politician ever wants to admit he made a mistake, especially right after pushing through a policy change, so far Cuomo hasn’t called for restoring the plastic-bag policy of just five weeks ago to fight the virus. Even if this is so obviously a good idea that even San Francisco has bowed to reality.

If Cuomo thinks “there’s no reason for” plastic bags, he hasn’t thought very much about the matter. Picture what it might be like to do, say, an August run to pick up groceries, then get the kids, then take them to their judo lesson, then come back home, and all the while there are packages of ground beef dripping and seeping into the reusable cloth tote bag in the trunk. Is it wise to keep reusing that cloth tote bag? You might forget to wash it. You might not be aware that bacteria are collecting in the bottom of the bag, bacteria being famously small and hard to spot. If you’re really eco-conscious, you might know that every time you wash a cloth tote bag in your washing machine, you generate more carbon emissions than would be produced by simply manufacturing a fresh plastic bag.

The war on single-use bags is, as John Tierney put it in his definitive debunking of plastic-bag hysteria, a solution that has been for many years in search of a problem. (Originally the problem was that plastic bags are petroleum products, and we were about to run out of oil.) No, the garbage in the oceans is not made up of plastic bags used in the West. Our single-use bags wind up in landfills. And what’s wrong with landfills? Not much. They’re all around us. They’re fine. As with everything else, technology has greatly improved them, even to the point where the methane emitted can be recaptured. The tennis stadium in Queens that is home to the U.S. Open is built on a landfill.

We’re told in sinister reports that it is the (Dr. Evil voice) plastic-bag industry that claims reusable tote bags carry deadly bacteria. Well, yes, they do say that, and it happens to be true. Politico three months ago ran a shocked-and-appalled story harrumphing that the plastic-bag industry is armed with lobbyists, quoting as a source of unbiased wisdom the lobbyists known as the Sierra Club. Politico also groused that various elected representatives were opposing plastic-bag bans in various ways. One such lawmaker, New York state senator Simcha Felder, once made his case against plastic-bag bans while holding up some grocery items. Politico described this act in sinister terms, as “brandishing a loaf of Wonder bread and a carton of eggs.” Can Wonder bread be “brandished,” like a weapon? I’d rather be socked in the face with a loaf of Wonder bread than be made to touch a cloth tote bag bristling with bacteria and viruses; how about you? Would you like to be the supermarket worker who has to touch reusable cloth tote bags all day long while loading groceries into them? Perhaps we should equip checkout clerks with hazmat suits and send the bill to the Sierra Club. Until then, I’d say that every time you put a cloth sack that may or may not be clean on the conveyor belt at the Piggly Wiggly, you’re the one who is “brandishing” something.