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Plastic Bag Ban Mania Will Do More Harm than Good

An anti-plastics craze has swept the country and the globe, prompting lawmakers to propose and impose bans on various plastic products—from straws to shopping bags to polystyrene foam cups—all in the name of saving the environment. CEI has already detailed why such bans can actually lead to increased energy usage and wasted resources, and why straw bans won’t achieve their intended purpose of reducing ocean pollution.

Now, let’s take a closer look at plastic bag bans. 

This year, several states are considering statewide plastic shopping bag bans, including New York, Washington, and New Hampshire. But before imposing bans, politicians should stop and think about why consumers like plastic bags. They are lightweight, easy to carry, sanitary, and don’t fall apart if they get wet. These attributes are particularly valuable for commuters—especially for senior citizens and disabled people who might find themselves hauling groceries home on a rainy day.

Plastic bags are also inexpensive compared to alternatives because plastic products require far fewer resources over their lifecycles—from energy to water to storage and disposal space—than the alternatives. According to researchers at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland, if we banned all plastic packaging and replaced it with glass and metals, global energy consumption would double. 

One would think that conserving resources is environmentally good, but ban advocates completely overlook these realities. For example, here are some overlooked points they really need to consider:

  • Reusable cloth bags are not necessarily better for the environment. Research demonstrates that alternative products use significantly more energy over each product’s lifecycle. Studies show cloth bags must be used more than 100 times before they yield environmental benefits, which is likely far more uses than most people get before they lose or toss the bags.
  • Cloth bags can harbor deadly bacteria. Lawmakers should not ignore the fact that there are potential health risks related to reusable cloth bags. In fact, university researchers have found significant amounts of potentially deadly coliform and E. coli living in used cloth grocery bags.
  • Paper bags use significantly more energy to make. For example, one study reports that plastic grocery bags consume 40 percent less energy during production and generate 80 percent less solid waste than paper bags.
  • Plastic bag bans could increase solid waste. Plastic bag bans do not necessarily reduce waste and can increase the waste going to landfills because replacement products—both paper and reusable bags—take up more landfill space. Paper does biodegrade in the environment, but not in a landfill as such waste is basically mummified.
  • Plastic bag bans won’t have much of an impact on ocean pollution. Research shows that the overwhelming majority of plastics in the ocean come from Asia and Africa; less than 1 percent is from the United States. Proper disposal—not government bans—is the key to keeping plastics and other litter out of the ocean.
  • Bag bans can close small businesses and put employees out of work. Many small businesses that sell and distribute plastic bags would be put out of business and their employees would be out of a job. And if some companies switch to selling paper bags, it won’t be easy. One distributor told me that paper bags consume four to eight times the space. This means they require more warehouse space for storage, more trucks for distribution, and more fuel to distribute the same number of bags. This also would increase traffic and cause more wear and tear to city streets.

Lawmakers and others need to wake up to reality. Banning plastics isn’t a solution to anything, and will waste resources in the end. If lawmakers are concerned about liter, they should focus on policies to promote proper waste disposal rather than ban valuable products.