Plastic Bag Bans Are Bad for the Environment

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The past several years have seen a groundswell of regulations on plastics, particularly plastic bags and cups and food containers made from polystyrene or Styrofoam. Supporters of these bans mostly claim that such policies promote environmental protection, when in reality they carry considerable environmental tradeoffs and impose needless burdens on consumers and economic growth.

In the United States, California has taken the lead in passing anti-plastic policies, encouraging localities and other states to follow suit. This past summer, the California State Senate passed a bill, sponsored by Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), banning foam cups and food containers statewide. This statewide ban failed in the California State Assembly, but localities around the state have already imposed foam packaging bans-including Los Angeles, Palo Alto, Monterey, San Francisco, and more. Plastic grocery bags have been banned in several California cities, including Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and Long Beach. California is not alone. Plastic grocery bags are banned in Aspen, Colorado, and the trend is spreading as other cities, including Austin, Boulder, Philadelphia, and Portland, Oregon, consider potential plastic bans. Some cities have opted for a tax on plastic bags, such as Washington, D.C.

Anti-plastic crusades are ongoing in other nations as well. In September, British Prime Minister David Cameron called on supermarkets to reduce usage of plastic bags-or prepare for national restrictions. Public officials in Europe are considering banning plastic bags for the entire European Union. In January 2011, Italy banned their use at supermarkets. Plastic packaging bans are being advanced in places as far off as India and the Phillippines.

Lawmakers provide some silly justifications for such policies. For example, California Sen. Lowenthal explained that he advanced his bill to ban foam cups and packaging “because it’s a job booster for California.” Earlier this year, Italy’s Minister of the Environment exclaimed that the nation’s ban on plastic bags was “a great innovation.” Others suggest that elimination of plastics is simply good environmental policy.

In reality, bans never promote innovation or growth-they do the opposite. Bans destroy the investment, productivity, and creativity of those who invent and develop products, and they divert resources from useful enterprises in order to find alternative products, which are usually inferior to those they replace. Accordingly, lawmakers should never ban products for arbitrary or political reasons. They should have clear and convincing evidence that such bans are the only means for protecting the public-a situation that rarely exists. It is obvious to see that plastics industry workers can lose jobs as markets shift to supposedly “environmentally better” products, and consumers lose convenience from such bans. Less obvious is the fact that these anti-plastics policies are not the slam-dunk for Mother Nature that supporters claim.

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