Dallas plastic bag ban bad for many reasons

by H. Sterling Burnett & Pamela Villarreal

Source: Dallas Morning News

More than two dozen cities nationwide have banned plastic grocery bags or have imposed a fee for using them to encourage the use of reusable bags. Dallas City Council member Dwaine Caraway has now asked his colleagues to consider similar action, but before any vote, the council should recognize that bag bans have hidden costs.

Consumers like choice, and most choose plastic bags for their convenience, flexibility and strength. As a result, anecdotal evidence indicates that cities with bag bans have lost commerce, while surrounding cities and neighborhoods benefit as shoppers go elsewhere.

Two years ago, Los Angeles County implemented a plastic bag ban effective for only the unincorporated areas of the county. However, the ban was not in place for incorporated areas. A survey conducted by our organization indicates that consumers who lived in unincorporated areas crossed over into incorporated areas to shop where plastic bags were available. Reports from Austin show similar results. Stores affected by bag bans reported an increase in missing shopping carts and hand baskets.

Additionally, Los Angeles County’s bag ban negatively affected employment at stores inside the ban area. While every store inside the ban area was forced to terminate some of its staff, not a single store outside the ban area dismissed any staff. Stores inside the ban area reduced their employment by more than 10 percent. Stores outside the ban area increased their employment by 2.4 percent. This occurred despite the fact that the overall unemployment rate in Los Angeles County fell dramatically.

The cost to taxpayers also will rise as lawsuits are filed challenging these bans.

Contrary to the myth propagated by environmental lobbyists, plastic bags are not a significant source of waste. Indeed, the national 2009 Keep America Beautiful study does not even include plastic bags in its top 10 sources of litter. A recent study found that plastic grocery bags make up less than 0.6 percent of the overall waste stream.

In addition, plastic bags are rarely single-use items. Rather, long after plastic grocery bags have been used to deliver the groceries safely home, people find a variety of ways to reuse them. They are used to line bathroom trash bins, collect dog waste and used cat litter, to securely seal soiled diapers and more.

Even this small amount will be reduced absent government interference, as plastic bag recycling is taking off. A number of major retailers have set up recycling boxes at the entrance of their stores to encourage recycling, and plastic bag recovery has increased by 31 percent since 2005. According to EPA data, this growth is more than nine times the 3.4 percent increase in recovery of all municipal solid waste from 2005 to 2009. Retailers have consistently argued that recycling is the best way to both satisfy consumer preference and meet environmental goals. Bag bans will reduce the motivation for those recycling efforts.

Reusable bags are being pushed as an alternative to paper or plastic in locales across the nation. Yet city leaders rarely consider the drawbacks. On the economic front, China is the leading manufacturer of reusable bags, while plastic bags are made in the U.S. with the industry employing thousands of workers.

There are also health concerns associated with reusable bags. When the bags are used to carry meats, poultry or fish, blood and other fluids can soak into them. If not cleaned regularly and stored properly, bacteria — including E. coli — can take up residence and mold can form. Continued use can contaminate the user’s food and the food of others as the contaminated reusable bags come into contact with the grocery conveyor belt. It’s true that reusable bags can be washed, but doing so shortens their useful life considerably.

Plastic bags are a minuscule waste problem, and every city that bans plastic bags costs its shoppers, businesses, the city government and workers with little or no benefit for the environment.

H. Sterling Burnett and Pamela Villarreal are senior fellows with the National Center for Policy Analysis, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research institute with offices in Dallas and Washington, D.C. They may be contacted at sterling.burnett@ncpathinktank.org and pam.villarreal@ncps.org.