Restrictions on Plastic Bags Fail to Deliver Results

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

Source: Investor’s Business Daily

Whether you spent the last month shopping for presents or stocking up on groceries, ask yourself one question: "How did I get all of those purchases home?" For the vast majority of people, the answer is plastic bags.

Despite the popularity of plastic bags, a growing number of municipalities are enacting laws aimed at reducing their use. The laws range from outright bans to taxes.

One argument for plastic bag bans is that cities will save money by reducing the costs of litter collection, solid waste disposal and recycling. And in tight fiscal times when municipal budgets are strained, the argument is compelling.

However, a recent study by the National Center for Policy Analysis demonstrates that there is simply no evidence that plastic bag restrictions reduce these costs.

In 2007, San Francisco became the first city to restrict plastic grocery bags. City Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi claimed that each plastic bag cost the city 17 cents.

However, with plastic bags amounting to less than 0.5% of the waste stream and a similarly minuscule amount of landfill space, I calculated that the cost of clearing plastic bags from San Francisco's streets, alleys and parks should be less than 7.9 cents per bag, not 17 cents — a considerable difference.

Even the 7.9 cents figure is suspect, because it assumes that each plastic bag is used only once. However, plastic bags are rarely used only once. People find a variety of ways to reuse them, long after unloading their groceries at home. They may line bathroom trash bins, collect dog waste and used cat litter, secure soiled diapers and more.

Still, all else being equal, the implementation of the 2007 ban should have somewhat decreased the costs of solid waste recovery, disposal and recycling. Yet the available data do not reveal such savings. Rather, San Francisco's household garbage rates increased from 2005 to 2013 by more than 78.6%.

Other cities have harkened to the siren song of plastic bag bans as well. On Dec. 15, 2009, Brownsville, Texas, imposed a ban on plastic shopping bags. This ban, however, had a major exception:

Plastic bags could still be used in exchange for a surcharge of $1 per transaction.

The fee, which finances city environmental programs, was initially intended to expire over time, at which point plastic bags were to be banned entirely. But now, with revenues flowing, the city has decided that it will not phase out the fee or ban the bags. Instead, Brownsville realized that plastic bags are a source of income to be encouraged rather than a cost to be avoided.

While the fees proved to be a source of revenue, Brownsville's garbage collection fees and waste disposal expenses rose 90.72% from 2004 to 2012. Despite the bag fee, Brownsville's solid waste revenues and expenses have risen in the first two years of the ban.

In June 2009, Washington, D.C.'s city council passed "The Anacostia River Clean-Up and Protection Act of 2009," which imposed a 5-cent tax on paper and plastic grocery bags. The main impetus for the bill was to reduce the amount of litter in the Anacostia River.

Unfortunately for the district, there has been widespread non-compliance on the part of retailers, with inspections finding that, in the first two years of the program, 60% and 52%, respectively, of inspected establishments failed to charge the fee.

While there is no good accounting of the overall waste reduction in the Anacostia River due to the law, data do exist for the district's Sanitation Services. Washington, D.C.'s solid waste budget has declined dramatically since 2009. But these reductions stem almost entirely from federal and local budget cuts. Full-time equivalent employees in the entire Sanitation Services Department declined from 1,865 in 2008 to just 404 in 2011.

In short, advocates have given a number of justifications for restricting consumers' use of carryout plastic bags. These include concerns about the scarce resources used to create the bags, the environmental harms that can result when the bags are disposed of improperly, the visible blight of roadside litter and the costs of disposing and recycling them.

Whatever the merits of the former arguments (which are themselves suspect, as plastic bags are proved to be the more environmentally friendly alternative to paper or reusable bags and make up less than 1% of all litter), banning or taxing plastic bags has not reduced waste disposal costs or saved cities money.

Without evidence that the bans produce these savings, the argument behind outlawing plastic bag use on such a basis fails.