Do Bans on Plastic Grocery Bags Save Cities Money?

December 11, 2013

Consumers choose plastic bags far more often than paper or reusable bags to carry their purchases. Compared to paper and reusable bags, plastic bags are lightweight, strong, flexible and moisture resistant. In addition, they are easy to store and reusable for multiple purposes. Despite these characteristics and their popularity, a growing number of municipalities and some states are enacting laws aimed at reducing the use of plastic (and sometimes paper) grocery bags. The laws range from outright bans to taxes, says H. Sterling Burnett, a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis.

  • Advocates have given a number of justifications for placing restrictions on consumers' use of carry-out plastic bags.
  • These include concerns about the scarce resources used to create the bags, environmental harms when they are disposed of improperly, the visible blight of roadside litter, and the cost of disposing or recycling them.
  • However, an examination of the bag bans and budgets for litter collection and waste disposal in San Francisco, San Jose, and the City and County of Los Angeles, Calif.; Washington, D.C.; and Brownsville and Austin, Texas, shows no evidence of a reduction in costs attributable to reduced use of plastic bags.

Consider the County of Los Angeles.

  • A November 2010 Los Angeles County, Calif., ordinance outlawed retail use of thin-film polyethylene bags.
  • Los Angeles County faced significant spending cuts during the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 budget years of more than $175 million and $35 million, respectively.
  • Budget cuts did not extend to solid waste collection or disposal.
  • Spending for solid waste rose 30.17 percent from the budget year 2006-2007 to 2011-2012, and projected spending rose 5.9 percent from 2011-2012 to the adopted budget for 2012-2013.

In the cities that have adopted bag bans, fees or taxes, there is little evidence so far that banning or taxing plastic bags will reduce waste disposal costs and save money. Those who make this claim must provide evidence to back it up, but they have rarely attempted to do so, and when they have, the evidence has proven questionable at best.

Source: H. Sterling Burnett, "Do Bans on Plastic Grocery Bags Save Cities Money?" National Center for Policy Analysis, December 2013.

 

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