NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Should Cities Ban Plastic Bags?

October 12, 2012

There's no evidence that banning plastic bags helps the environment -- and plenty of evidence that it may actually hurt. Bans yield little benefit to wildlife while increasing carbon emissions and other unhealthy environmental effects, says Todd Myers, environmental director at the Washington Policy Center.

  • Ban backers cite impacts on marine life, but they consistently sidestep the actual data.
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for one, says there are currently no published studies about how many marine mammals die because of marine debris.
  • As for the pollution caused by plastic bags, consider a study by Ospar, the European organization working to protect the marine environment, which found plastic shopping bags represented less than 3 percent of marine litter on European beaches.

Critics also say that ban opponents ignore the environmental impact of bags over the course of their lifetime. But many studies examine just that.

  • The U.K. Environment Agency's study, for instance, compared the energy expended in creating, using and disposing of plastic, paper and reusable bags to arrive at its figures.
  • Consumers would have to use a cotton bag 173 times before they match the energy savings of one plastic bag, assuming 40 percent of bags are reused -- a percentage that's actually lower than the rate in some cities.

This doesn't mean plastic bags have no impact. When determining the environmental costs and benefits, however, we need to be honest about the science and the trade-offs. In the end, communities need to seek the greatest environmental benefit for their time and resources.

Source: Todd Myers, "Should Cities Ban Plastic Bags?" Wall Street Journal, October 8, 2012.


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