The Corner

Energy & Environment

Plastic-Bag Bans Are Bad for the Environment

A street vendor reaches for a plastic shopping bag after the New York State legislature included a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags in their 2020 budget in Manhattan, April 2, 2019. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Starting next month the state of New York will be banning single-use plastic shopping bags, an indication that our Empire State government continues to consider it its sworn to duty to harass and annoy its own citizens. As John Tierney demonstrates in the winter issue of City Journal, though, plastic-bag bans are based in emotion, not rational consideration of costs and benefits. (Hundreds of municipalities and eight states have outlawed or regulated such bags.)

Plastic bags constitute less than two percent of litter, Tierney reports. They take up little room in landfills, and because they do not decompose, they don’t release methane into the atmosphere. “The bags’ tiny quantity of carbon, extracted from natural gas, goes back underground, where it can be safely sequestered” in a modern landfill.

Every other grocery bag has worse consequences for the environment. To offset the initial carbon footprint of a cotton tote bag, you’d have to reuse it 173 times — but people typically use them only 15 times before discarding them because they get dirty. The net effect of banning plastic grocery bag is more greenhouse-gas emissions. A study by the Reason Foundation found that the banning of plastic bags in San Francisco caused emissions related to the usage of grocery bags to rise by at least nine percent, and possibly to more than double.

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