A Survey on the Economic Effects of Los Angeles County’s Plastic Bag Ban

Policy Reports | Energy and Natural Resources

No. 340
Thursday, August 16, 2012
by Pamela Villarreal and Baruch Feigenbaum


Policymakers hope that banning plastic bags will encourage customers to use cloth bags, but whether or not that occurs, the ban itself produces economic and environmental harm.

The economic costs are substantial. Banning plastic bags reduces employment; provides an unfair advantage to retailers in one geographic area over another; leads to the theft of store shopping carts and shopping baskets; results in customers using more plastic produce bags (thus undercutting the effect of the ban); increases prices for consumers; decreases profit for producers; and decreases economic activity in the area. An impartial cost-benefit analysis would be unlikely to justify banning plastic bags.

Importantly, there are also no environmental benefits to banning plastic bags — but there is potential harm. Compared to cloth bags, plastic bags require less energy to produce and less energy to recycle and produce less municipal waste. Plastic bags generate fewer greenhouse gas emissions and require less water to produce than paper bags. Cloth bags need to be used 104 times before there is any environmental advantage over plastic bags. But most cloth bags are used half that amount. Reusing cloth bags can also lead to cross-contamination and disease.

Plastic bags may be an easy target for politicians. However, they are better for the environment than either paper or cloth bags, and many consumers prefer them. Before banning any product policymakers need to conduct a detailed economic and environmental analysis.  Unfortunately, in Los Angeles County and other jurisdictions that have imposed bans or punitive taxes on bags, such studies have not been done. Since banning plastic bags harms both the economy and the environment, the use of plastics bags should be permitted.

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