NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Plastic Bag Restrictions Offer Few Benefits

January 24, 2013

The panic surrounding plastic grocery bags is largely unfounded, say Kenneth P. Green and Elizabeth DeMeo of the Fraser Institute. Green and DeMeo refute the two main arguments made to support grocery bag bans.

The first claim is that the production of plastic bags pollutes the air.

  • Plastic bag critics claim it takes approximately 12 million barrels of oil to produce the 100 billion plastic bags consumed in the United States each year.
  • A 2011 study by the Environmental Agency of England that compared seven types of grocery bags including conventional plastic, biodegradable, paper and cotton bags found that traditional plastic bags have the lowest environmental impact of any of the bags.
  • The cotton bags that have grown in popularity with grocery shoppers are actually the least environmentally-friendly bag.

The second claim is that plastic bags pollute the water.

  • Hype over this claim is amplified by reports that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a mountain of trash floating in the Pacific Ocean that has accumulated due to prevailing currents, is twice the size of Texas.
  • Angelicque White, an assistant professor of oceanography, states that the patch is definitely not twice the size of Texas, though she notes that the amount of plastic bags in the ocean is troubling.
  • Environmental group Grow NYC estimates that as little as 7.5 percent of human waste is comprised of plastic film.

Further scientific evidence suggests that alternative types of bags, particularly the reusable cloth bags, have health risks not associated with plastic bags. In 2010, Charles Gerba and colleagues at the University of Arizona discovered that bacteria harmful to humans thrive in the cloth fibers of reusable bags where food is stored.

The economic impact provides another reason to be skeptical of the trend sweeping America. A study by Suffolk University's Beacon Hill Institute suggests that as consumers carry more reusable bags, they will buy less, which leads to less corporate revenue, less employment and lower tax collections. Green and DeMeo also cite a 2012 study by National Center for Policy Analysis Senior Fellow Pam Villarreal that found that employment drops when a bag ban is instituted.

Source: Kenneth P. Green and Elizabeth DeMeo, "The Crusade Against Plastic Bags," Fraser Institute, January/February 2013. 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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