NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Austin Would Be Ill-Advised to Ban Plastic Bags

March 2, 2012

More than two dozen cities nationwide have either banned plastic grocery bags (and in some cases paper bags) entirely, or seek to encourage the use of reusable bags by charging fees for plastic grocery bags.  Austin is the largest city in Texas to consider such a ban, says H. Sterling Burnett, a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis.

Austin's ban would be one of the broadest in the nation, applying to all so-called single-use bags, paper or plastic, from all retailers.

Austin City Council members seem to have been particularly influenced by a presentation from Bob Gedert, director of Austin Resource Recovery, in which he stated that plastic bags comprise 2.2 percent of the city's litter.  There's just one problem: That figure is dead wrong.  In fact, it exaggerates the percentage of litter made of plastic bags by 366 percent, according to the study's author.

  • What the study's lead author, Steven Stein, actually found was that plastic bag litter comprised only 0.6 percent of litter volume, not the 2.2 percent claimed by Gedert.
  • Even the 0.6 percent figure is high because it includes other types of plastic waste, such as industrial wrapping and dry cleaner and trash bags.
  • Because Gedert overstated the amount of plastic bag litter, he also grossly overstated the dollars saved by banning plastic bags.
  • Indeed, the 2009 Keep America Beautiful study does not include plastic bags in its top 10 sources of litter.

The nationwide frenzy to ban plastic bags comes with hidden costs that virtually no one is reporting.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that bag bans result in lost commerce in the cities where they're enacted, while surrounding cities and neighborhoods benefit as shoppers vote with their feet.

Also, many plastic bags are, in fact, not just used once.  At home, plastic bags are used for collecting trash, animal waste, diapers and more.  In addition, increasingly, plastic bags are being recycled.  In Austin, a growing number of retailers are making an organized effort to recycle used plastic bags.

Source: H. Sterling Burnett, "Austin Would Be Ill-Advised to Ban Plastic Bags," Austin-American Statesman, February 29, 2012.

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