The Corner

Why California’s Plastic-Bag Ban Won’t Help the Environment

Yesterday, California became the first state to ban plastic grocery bags entirely. In a statement signing the ban into law, Governor Jerry Brown argued that “This bill is a step in the right direction — it reduces the torrent of plastic polluting our beaches, parks, and even the vast ocean itself. . . . We’re the first to ban these bags, and we won’t be the last.” While the governor may unfortunately prove correct in his prediction of future statewide bans to come, he’s almost certainly wrong that they in any way help the environment. In a 2011 NRO article, I explained why plastic-bag taxes and bans can end up causing more environmental harm than good:

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[‘s plastic-bag tax], for example. When the New York Times reported the 94 percent decrease [in plastic-bag use], 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.”

You can read the entire piece here.

Nat Brown is a deputy web editor at Foreign Affairs and a former deputy managing editor of National Review Online.

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