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In Defense of Plastic Bags

Don't miss NRO-new-guy Nat Brown's take on plastic-grocery bags over on the homepage. The opener:

Before they came for our light bulbs, they targeted our plastic bags. And they’re still after them.

It all began in 2002, when Ireland enacted a plastic-bag tax for the clearly stated purpose of lowering the amount of litter in the country. The fact that it would also raise tax revenue was an added bonus. And sure enough, weeks after its passage, the New York Times was already reporting a 94 percent drop in plastic-bag use, as reusable bags quickly caught on among Irish shoppers.

So naturally, when San Francisco (big surprise) became the first U.S. city to pass an all-out ban on plastic grocery bags, in 2007, supporters were quick to highlight Ireland’s case as an example of the such legislation would have on the environment. Aside from making up a sizeable percentage of total litter, they argued, the bags took up a large amount of space in landfills and were difficult to recycle.

In the years since passage of the San Francisco ban, several more municipalities have enacted similar legislation, including bans in Santa Monica and the unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County and a tax in Washington D.C. In Oregon, a statewide plastic-bag ban has been introduced in the legislature, as have prospective statewide bag taxes in both Indiana and Maryland. And why not? Such legislation reduces the amount of solid waste, promotes the use of reusable bags, and (in the case of taxes) increases much-needed revenue for state and local governments all at once, right?

Well, not quite.

Unfortunately, study after study has shown that most of the supposed “benefits” of these bans and taxes have a negligible effect on the environment at best, and can actually have unintended consequences that cause greater environmental harm. Take Ireland, for example. When the New York Times reported the 94 percent decrease, it neglected to specify that it was referring only to plastic grocery-bag use. Sales of non-grocery plastic bags (garbage bags, etc.) rose an astonishing 400 percent, amounting to a net increase of 10 percent in total plastic-bag consumption. In an interview with National Review Online, Patrick Gleason, state-affairs manager of Americans for Tax Reform, explains why.

The rest here.

And Ken Green of AEI wrote on the same subject yesterday:

The traditional, thin plastic bag, though increasingly demonized and taxed, has better environmental performance and is likely to be considerably safer for human health than alternatives.

Two recent studies might end the great grocery bag debate. The debates over which type of grocery bag is best break down into two issues: which are better for the environment, and which are better for your health.

The first study, in June 2010, looked at the question of cloth bag contamination. It’s well-known that though they appear clean, supermarkets offer many opportunities for people to pick up contaminated food: other shoppers contaminate shopping carts, stockroom clerks contaminate containers, and fruit and veggies come from farms pre-equipped with things like salmonella, e.coli, and other dangerous microbes. When shoppers put such things into cloth bags, they can contaminate the bag, and then wind up contaminating uncontaminated foods on their next shopping trip. In “Assessment of the Potential for Cross Contamination of Food Products by Reusable Shopping Bags,” Charles Gerba and his colleagues at the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University studied reusable bags and found that a goodly percentage were indeed contaminated:

Large numbers of bacteria were found in almost all bags and coliform bacteria in half. Escherichia coli were identified in 12% of the bags and a wide range of enteric bacteria, including several opportunistic pathogens. When meat juices were added to bags and stored in the trunks of cars for two hours, the number of bacteria increased 10-fold indicating the potential for bacterial growth in the bags.

Washing the bags might help, but Gerba et al surveyed people who use cloth bags and found that “reusable bags are seldom if ever washed and often used for multiple purposes.”

The rest here.

Greg Pollowitz

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In Defense of Plastic Bags

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