NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Plastic Bag Ban Will Not Achieve Goals

May 30, 2012

The city of Los Angeles is set to impose the nation's harshest regulation on disposable shopping bags.  By prohibiting the distribution of both plastic and paper bags, the city council claims it will attain a number of benefits that are direly wanted by its citizens.  However, careful analysis of each supposed benefit shows that the ban is unlikely to provide any such value, says Jay Beeber in Reason Magazine.

First, proponents of the ban claim that it will reduce the amount of waste produced by the city and therefore reduce the size of necessary local landfills.

  • California's Statewide Waste Characterization Study shows that "Plastic Grocery and Other Merchandise Bags" consistently make up just 0.3 percent of the waste stream in the state.
  • This compares strikingly with organic waste such as food and yard clippings (which make up 32 percent) and construction debris (30 percent).
  • Therefore, the effect of eliminating free grocery bags on the amount of waste generated in the city would be insignificant.

Second, ban advocates argue that in addition to reducing aggregate waste, it will reduce the amount of waste that remains in public areas in the form of litter.

  • However, litter studies from across the country demonstrate that, on average, plastic retail bags make up only about 1 percent to 2 percent of all litter.
  • Furthermore, previous bans have not been shown to directly address this issue.
  • In San Francisco, for example, plastic bags comprised 0.6 percent of litter before the city banned plastic bags and 0.64 percent a year after the ban took effect.

Third and finally, supporters of the ban contend that it will support air quality, citing the completely fallacious figure that 12 million barrels of oil are used annually in the manufacture of plastic bags.

  • In reality, plastic bags made in the United States are not derived from oil; they're made from a byproduct of domestic natural gas refinement.
  • Additionally, the reusable bags used as a substitute are usually imported from overseas -- a process that involves substantial emissions from cargo ships.
  • This doesn't even account for the fact that the materials necessary to make reusable bags usually are not recyclable and require enormous energy inputs into agriculture (cotton).

Source: Jay Beeber, "Plastic Bag Ban Will Put Los Angeles In Landfill," Reason Magazine, May 23, 2012.

For text:


Browse more articles on Environment Issues