NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

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

August 16, 2012

In July 2011, Los Angeles County banned the use of thin-film plastic bags for large grocery and retail stores in some areas of the county. In January 2012, the ban took effect for smaller grocery and convenience stores. The ban did not apply to any stores in incorporated areas of Los Angeles County, say Pamela Villarreal, a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis, and Baruch Feigenbaum, a policy analyst at the Reason Foundation.

Villarreal and Feigenbaum performed a survey to determine the effects of the ban on sales and employment at the stores affected by the ban. The study also sought to determine if consumers changed their shopping behavior by increasing purchases at stores that could still offer plastic bags. The survey found that following full implementation of the ban, sales increased at stores in incorporated cities compared with stores in unincorporated areas.

The ban also 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.

The study examined the environmental and health effects of bag bans, and analyzed their potential costs and benefits. Plastic bags are better for the environment than reusable or paper bags.

  • For an equivalent amount of groceries, production of paper bags requires three times as much total energy and recovers only 1 percent of that energy through combustion.
  • Paper bags also produce substantially more landfill waste -- for an equivalent amount of groceries, single-use plastic bags produce 15.5 pounds of waste while paper bags produce nearly 75 pounds of waste.

Paper bags also produce more greenhouse gases.

  • Plastic bags generate 68 percent fewer greenhouse gases than composted paper bags, and consume 71 percent less energy during production.
  • Reusable bags may be the worst of all, needing to be used 104 times to be less polluting than plastic bags; however, such bags are used only 52 times on average.

Policymakers' targeting of plastic bags is unfortunate. Banning or taxing such bags reduces economic activity and increases unemployment. However, plastic bags are less harmful to the environment than either paper or reusable cloth bags. There are no economic or environmental reasons for banning or taxing plastic bags.

Source: Pamela Villarreal and Baruch Feigenbaum, "A Survey on the Economic Effects of Los Angeles County's Plastic Bag Ban," National Center for Policy Analysis, August 16, 2012.


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